By Lisi Niesner and Francois Murphy
VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria allowed thousands of shops to reopen on Tuesday, becoming one of the first countries in Europe to loosen a lockdown imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Austria acted early in its outbreak to close schools, bars, theatres, restaurants, non-essential shops and other gathering places roughly four weeks ago. It has told the public to stay home and work from there if possible.
The Alpine republic has fared relatively well so far, having reported 384 deaths in total, fewer than some larger European countries have been suffering each day. The daily increase in confirmed cases has fallen to low single digits in percentage terms and hospitalisations have stabilised.
“I am incredibly relieved, both for my colleagues and for myself because it was a very, very long time for us, and above all an uncertain time,” Vienna florist Barbara Kugler said as she bought plants at a wholesale market.
However, critics voiced concerns that easing the restrictions could lead to a resurgence of the virus.
Last week, the conservative-led government outlined a step-by-step plan to reopen parts of the economy, starting with shops of up to 400 square meters (4,300 square feet) – roughly twice the playing area of a singles tennis court – as well as all DIY and garden centres on Tuesday.
They are due to be followed by shopping centres, larger shops and hairdressers from May 1.
Previously bustling city centres remained quiet amid a cold snap. But DIY stores were busy, reflecting the needs of a self-isolating public, with long yet orderly lines of shoppers outside pushing trolleys.
“I have work to do in my garden and that will be my project over the next few days,” software developer Ewald Wallner said at a DIY centre in the eastern town of Eisenstadt.
The crowds prompted Interior Minister Karl Nehammer to tell a news conference: “The DIY shop will stay open. You don’t have to get everything done today.”
It remains unclear whether, even with limits on the number of people allowed inside shops and a requirement for all shoppers to wear face masks, the government is jeopardizing the lockdown that is still in effect.
“It is confusing, and if you ask yourself why (this is happening), it is of course about money. So I think of course, exaggerating slightly, Mammon is being put before people’s health,” said optician Nikolaus Hauser, who owns a shop in the trendy, upmarket seventh district of Vienna.
While the move helps his business, Hauser said he expected coronavirus infections to accelerate because of it, and that “does leave a bit of a bitter aftertaste”.
Each week of lockdown has cost Austria’s economy 0.53% of yearly gross domestic product, or 2.1 billion euros ($2.3 billion), its central bank has estimated.
“Please stay strong, please keep holding on. The crisis is far from having been overcome,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a news conference, calling the move a first step towards a “new normal”.
Other European countries are loosening their lockdowns, albeit differently. On Monday, Spain allowed some activities, including construction and manufacturing, to resume. Denmark is reopening daycare centres and some schools on Wednesday.
($1 = 0.9156 euros)
(Additional reporting by Matteo Witt and Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Mark Potter)