By Francois Murphy
VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria will require shoppers to wear basic face masks in supermarkets in a bid to slow the still too-rapid spread of the coronavirus, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Monday.
Austria has closed schools, restaurants, bars, theatres and other gathering places, including non-essential shops. People have been told to stay at home and work from there if possible.
The country has reported 108 deaths and more than 9,000 cases, fewer than its neighbours Italy and Switzerland and within its health system’s capacity so far, but Kurz told a news conference its intensive care capacity could be exceeded by mid-April.
“Many cannot imagine what is heading our way within weeks, but the truth is that this is the calm before the storm. And to tell how horrific that storm can be, you can look at our neighbour Italy,” Kurz said, referring to hospitals unable to cope with the number of sick people, and hundreds of dead a day.
The rate of infection remains “far too high”, Kurz said, adding that less than medical-grade masks would be distributed this week, probably from Wednesday.
“As of the moment, these masks are handed out in front of supermarkets it will be compulsory to wear them in supermarkets,” Kurz said, adding that the aim in the medium-term was for people to wear them in public more generally as well.
While the masks would not protect the wearer against infection, they would stop them sneezing or coughing on others and potentially infecting them, he added.
The World Health Organization has, however, been sceptical about such measures.
“There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any particular benefit,” Dr Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergencies expert, told a news conference later on Monday while adding that he was not aware of Austria’s measure specifically.
“In fact there is some evidence to suggest the opposite in the misuse or (not) wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly or taking it off and all the other risks that are otherwise associated with that.”
Austria is also carrying out tests on a representative sample of 2,000 people to get a clearer understanding of how much of the population has been exposed to the virus, Kurz said, adding that Austria was one of the first countries in Europe to do so. The results will be available at the end of the week.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Additional reporting by Emma Farge and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Catherine Evans and Alison Williams)