Austrians enjoy last day before lockdown

Under a clear blue sky, Austrians enjoyed a final day out at coffeehouses and Christmas markets before the government imposes a nationwide lockdown to stem a wave of coronavirus infections.

The measures, which will take effect early Monday, are expected to last for up to 20 days, but will be re-evaluated after 10 days.

They require people to stay at home apart from basic reasons like grocery shopping, going to the doctor and exercising.

Restaurants and most shops will close and larger events will be cancelled.

Schools and nurseries will remain open, but parents are encouraged to keep their children at home.

Austria hopes to lift the measures on December 13, but may hold a further lockdown on the unvaccinated.

Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg also announced on Friday that Austria will introduce a vaccine mandate from February. 1. The details of how the mandate will work are not yet clear.

With the lockdown approaching, the Christmas markets in central Vienna were packed with people eager to buy gifts and enjoy one last round of hot drinks and food.

At the Freyung Christmas Market in Vienna, Alexandra Ljesevic and her sister Anna drank mulled wine and punch between wooden stalls and under sparkling Christmas lights.

“It’s the last chance to feel the Christmas time and atmospheres,” said Alexandra Ljesevic.

The sisters said they feel happier than most as their jobs will not be affected by the lockdown. But they are not optimistic that business will reopen on December 13.

“It would be weird if in 20 days they said, ‘Okay, for vaccinated people you are free to go’, when the hospitals are still overwhelmed,” said Anna Ljesevic. “That’s the only reason we even need the lockdown.”

On the other side of the market, Maria Fernanda Monasterio was enjoying a hot chocolate and complaining that the market was shutting down.

“This is the most wonderful time of the year for me here in Vienna,” she said. “I was really looking forward to it.”

In an interview on Sunday in the Kurier newspaper, Schallenberg said it is “sad” that the Austrian government had to take a mandate to ensure that enough people are vaccinated.

Just under 66 percent of Austria’s 8.9 million residents are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.

Austria reported 15,297 new infections on Saturday, after a week in which the number of daily cases reached 10,000.

Hospitals, especially those in the hardest-hit regions of Salzburg and Upper Austria, have been overwhelmed as the number of coronavirus patients in intensive care rises.

“That people’s freedoms have to be restricted again is, believe me, also hard for me to bear,” he said.

The new measures, especially the vaccine mandate, are met with fierce opposition from some.

A Saturday protest in the capital Vienna drew 40,000 people, including members of far-right parties and groups, police said.

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