A view of a deserted Graben Square amid coronavirus precautions in Vienna, Austria, on April 2, 2020.

David Visnjic/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Austrian officials plan to begin incrementally loosening coronavirus restrictions starting with small shops on April 14 and larger businesses from May 1.

The country’s government took aggressive steps to put the nation of nearly 9 million people on lockdown in mid-March.

“Austria has reacted faster and more restrictively than other countries. So we have been able to prevent the worst from happening,” said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

Denmark and the Czech Republic are considering similar steps, but Hans Kluge, of the World Health Organization, warned that “now is not the time to relax measures” but to “double” down.

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Some governments are wrestling with decisions that involve putting millions of people on lockdown as the coronavirus continues to escalate — Austria is not one of them.

Instead, the nation’s leaders are cautiously tiptoeing toward gradually lifting restrictions that were enforced in mid-March in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in neighboring Italy and its own ski resorts. Schools and non-essential businesses were closed, and people were urged to work from home.

It’s because the Austrian government issued social distancing measures early on in Europe’s coronavirus fight that it was able to “flatten the curve” and spare the country’s nearly 9 million residents from the brunt of the illness.

It also boosted local face mask production to avoid depending on imports of the personal protective equipment, according to The New York Times.

“Austria has reacted faster and more restrictively than other countries,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in a press release. “So we have been able to prevent the worst from happening. This circumstance now gives us the opportunity to get out of this crisis faster, but only if we all continue to consistently adhere to the measures.” 

In all, Austria has confirmed more than 13,200 coronavirus cases and 295 deaths as of Thursday. At least 5,240 people have recovered, based on data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

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Austria’s number of infections was doubling every three days when the lockdown began, The Times found. Now, the country’s new infections have been declining since March 30, based on information from the statistics website Worldometer.

Worldometer data shows a downturn trend in Austria’s daily new cases.

Worldometer

On Monday, Austrian leaders announced that the lockdown will be loosened incrementally.

Small shops, hardware stores, and gardens will reopen on April 14, and larger businesses will follow on May 1, according to The Washington Post.

Hotels, restaurants, and businesses like gyms and hair salons which involve people being at close quarters to one another aren’t likely to receive permission to resume business until mid-May or even June, The Times said.

On Easter, which will be celebrated on April 12, a maximum of five people will be allowed to be in one room at the same time — unless they live in the same house.

Upon announcing what he called “a step-by-step resurrection” of Austria’s economy, Kurz stressed, “We are not out of the woods.”

Public events are slated to pick up in July, while schools will remain shuttered until fall and there’s no word on when international travel will be allowed, The Post reported.

German police officers stand guard at a checkpoint at the Austrian border, where crossings have been severely restricted in an effort to rein in the spread of the coronavirus.

Andreas Gebert/Getty Images

Although officials are hoping to stimulate economic activity, people who emerge from their homes to visit shops or use public transit must continue to cover their mouths and noses. And can expect to be asked to stay at least six feet away from anyone around them for several more months, per The Times.

The government plans to pay close attention to the effects of these looser restrictions, Kurz said, noting, “We will very closely monitor the number of new infections and will immediately pull the emergency brake if need be,” according to The Times.

Denmark and the Czech Republic are mulling similar moves, but the World Health Organization’s director for Europe, Hans Kluge, issued a warning on Wednesday, the Times said. Some countries are seeing “positive signs,” he acknowledged, but it’s too early to begin lifting containment measures.

“Now is not the time to relax measures,” he said at a news conference. “It is the time to once again double and triple our collective efforts to drive toward suppression with the whole support of society.”

For her part, the head of virology at the Medical University of Vienna, Elisabeth Puchhammer-Stöckl, told the Times that the world continues to be “in unchartered territory” and will need to learn to navigate this new normal in real-time.

“We are still living in a pandemic,” she said. “This virus is not going anywhere.”

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