Viennese take second lockdown in their stride

Denise HRUBY
·3-min read

In front of Vienna's City Hall, preparations for one of the Austrian capital's famous Christmas markets were on ice Tuesday and the wooden stalls shuttered as the country began a second coronavirus lockdown.

As of midnight, new rules mean Austrians are only supposed to leave the house for a limited set of reasons such as essential work, food shopping, exercise or seeking medical attention.

But there were some signs of a more relaxed atmosphere than in the first virus wave in the spring, as parks and playgrounds stayed open and more people ventured out to work.

While public transport and the shopping streets around Vienna's historic St. Stephen's Cathedral were emptier than usual on a morning of fine autumn sunshine, joggers and dog walkers were much in evidence along the central Danube canal.

As she got her takeaway coffee on the city's central Ringstrasse boulevard, estate agent Monika Vass told AFP: "We're more relaxed this time, we know how to watch out for ourselves and for other people too".

In contrast to the first lockdown, when she had an "enforced holiday", she had a day of apartment viewings planned.

As in the first lockdown, few police could be seen on the streets to check people were sticking to the rules.

While the Vienna University campus stood empty of students and lecturers, electrician Robert Bartha, who works on the site, said he currently had "the same or more" amount of work to do as his deadlines hadn't changed.

Asked what difference the lockdown was making to his work, he said simply that "we have to wear the mask more often".

- 'Saving' Christmas -

The new restrictions come after a two-week "light lockdown" involving a night-time curfew and the closure of cafes and restaurants failed to stop a surge in infections which has seen the total number of cases in the country of 8.8 million go past 213,000.

Austrian doctors say the health system is approaching its limits, particularly in intensive care units, and the government has come under fire for not acting sooner.

But while Austrians have by and large accepted the need for the new restrictions, the toll the pandemic is taking is still clear.

Wolfgang, 58, had suffered from mental health issues before the virus hit and said the isolation of the current situation had made things worse.

"I understand that this (lockdown) is necessary but for me personally it's a difficult time -- I'm not doing so well," he said while on his way to see his psychiatrist.

While schools have moved to distance learning, they have kept their doors open to provide emergency childcare for those parents who need it.

The Krone newspaper reported that in Vienna some classes were as much as 80 percent full on Tuesday morning.

Those parents who are keeping their children at home are once again having to work out how to juggle the extra responsibility.

"It's a challenge, we wouldn't manage it without the grandparents -- and then we have to play the role of teachers as well," care worker and mother of two Susanne Cekic told the Kurier newspaper.

As well as protecting capacity in the health system, one of the stated aims of the new lockdown is to "save" Christmas celebrations after the measures are due to be lifted on December 6.

Behind the shuttered Christmas market at City Hall, a poster on the building itself reads: "We will hug each other again".

deh-jsk/wdb