Austrians let their hair down as coronavirus curbs are relaxed

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austrians flocked to newly reopened hairdressers, beauticians and electronics shops on Saturday, as they relished the loosening of a seven-week-old coronavirus lockdown, although the move could yet cause a rebound in infections.

The Alpine republic acted early in its outbreak to close restaurants, bars, theatres, schools, non-essential shops and other gathering places, which helped reduce the daily increase in infections to less than 1%. Austria has reported about 15,500 cases and 589 deaths so far.

The conservative-led government has said those relatively low numbers justify a phased reopening. The second phase – shopping centres, larger shops and service providers including hairdressers – began on Friday, a public holiday, meaning almost all those reopened on Saturday.

“After seven weeks in which no appointments were possible, I have the great fortune of having got the first appointment at my hairdresser,” Gertraud Schubert said proudly as she had her hair cut and coloured at Hair Concept, a Vienna salon which is fully booked for the next three weeks.

Of several European countries which have loosened their lockdowns, Switzerland and Denmark have already let hairdressers reopen, prompting relief among many who had grown scruffy and unkempt while working from home.

In Vienna, hairdressers and clients wore face masks, which are required in shops and on public transport.

The lockdown loosening started on April 14 with DIY and garden centres as well as non-essential shops of up to 400 square metres. Restaurants, cafes and bars can reopen on May 15, followed by hotels on May 29, provided infections do not surge.

While new infections remain low, there are indications of a possible rebound. The reproduction rate, the number of people on average who catch the virus from each infected person, has been rising for several days, according to a report here by public health body AGES published on Thursday.

The reproduction rate, often referred to as R and calculated over 13 days, was 0.67% nationally. In Vienna, home to more than a fifth of the population, it was already close to 1, the report showed. Above 1, infections increase exponentially.

Austria also relaxed its general lockdown rules on Friday, saying the public no longer needed a reason such as shopping or exercise to leave their homes.

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Quarantines extended at Austrian ski resorts as coronavirus lingers

VIENNA (Reuters) – Lockdowns at two of Austria’s top ski resorts in the province of Tyrol are being extended for two more weeks as tests have confirmed the coronavirus is still widespread there, the provincial government said on Friday.

The resort town of St Anton am Arlberg and the valley that includes another resort, Ischgl, have been under quarantine since March 13 after it became clear that they were hotspots of infection. The virus thrived at several ski resorts, where crowded apres-ski bars gave it a breeding ground.

Ischgl and the surrounding valley are the source of Austria’s biggest cluster of infections, accounting for more than 600 cases in the country and hundreds more abroad. The local authorities have been accused of responding too slowly to that outbreak, having first closed a bar there on March 9.

The province of Tyrol in which they lie, the first and hardest-hit province in Austria, recently carried out a testing offensive in the quarantined areas and at a third resort under lockdown, Soelden.

“Due to the continued existence of infection chains, on the advice of medical experts, we have no choice but to extend the quarantines for the Paznaun Valley and St Anton for a further two weeks until April 26,” Tyrol’s Governor Guenther Platter said in a statement issued by his provincial government.

Apart from a small number of towns under quarantine, the rest of Austria plans to start reopening some shops next week as infections have eased.

Although the quarantines at St Anton and Ischgl were announced with immediate effect on March 13, foreign tourists were then allowed to leave the resorts, further spreading infections and fuelling accusations of mismanagement.

Many foreign seasonal workers stayed to complete a two-week quarantine and have since been transported home in a more orderly manner.

In recent days close to 3,000 tests have been carried out at the three resorts and roughly two-thirds of those tests have been assessed so far, the statement said. That is a significant proportion of the towns’ combined population of roughly 8,100.

“The picture we have is quite clear: In roughly 19% (of those tests) in Ischgl and roughly 13% in St Anton the presence of elements of the coronavirus could be proved,” the statement said. A study published earlier on Friday found that just 0.33% of Austria’s population as a whole is infected.

“From a medical point of view it would therefore be irresponsible to open these areas from next week,” it added, quoting Guenter Weiss, Innsbruck University Clinic’s director of internal medicine.

A decision on Soelden, the biggest of the three towns and where roughly 40% of the test results are not yet available, is due this weekend.

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Austria to ban tourist stays at hotels to stem coronavirus spread

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria is banning the use of hotels for tourism as part of wide-ranging efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus with Easter holidays approaching, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said on Monday.

“A third point are hotels, with regard to the Easter holidays … We want to stop the touristic use of hotels for this phase,” Anschober told a government news conference.

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