Austria is to join a small but growing number of European countries making the wearing of face masks outside the home compulsory amid shifting debate over the medical gear’s protective utility.
Authorities would start distributing millions of free face masks at the entrances to all supermarkets from midweek onwards, chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced on Monday. Shoppers will only be permitted inside supermarkets and other open stores, such as pharmacies, if they are wearing masks.
While masks are a familiar sight throughout Asia, the only other countries in Europe to require the wearing of masks in public space are Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The step would be a “learning phase” for further measures to come that would mandate the use of masks for any situation outside the home likely to bring people close to one another, Mr Kurz said on Monday.
“I’m fully aware that wearing masks is something alien to our culture,” he added. “Together we have to do everything [possible] so that we can quickly return to normalcy and a functioning economy.”
The move by Vienna comes as European governments devise ways to contain the spread of Covid-19 and keep it from re-emerging after their economies come out of their prolonged self-imposed lockdowns. It marks a departure from earlier official guidance.
The WHO and many governments say healthy people do not need to wear a mask unless they are taking care of a person with suspected Covid-19 infection. The advice is partly an attempt to stop people who don’t need masks — which are in short supply in many places and needed by health workers — from trying to buy them.
The German government may enforce a similar obligation when it considers relaxing the lockdown measures, health ministry spokesman Hanno Kautz told reporters on Monday, according to Reuters. Such masks could help protect others from contracting the illness from the wearer, Mr Kautz was quoted as saying.
France initially advised its citizens not to wear masks, then advised they should wear one only if they were infected or if they worked in care or retail. The main reason was that the government chose to keep its short supplies for hospitals.
But French trade unions representing shop assistants, factory workers and police officers have demanded safety equipment for all staff or else they would exercise their right to refuse to work in dangerous conditions.
In Italy, where the outbreak has been the deadliest in the world, the wearing has within a month gone from attracting disapproving looks to being socially obligatory.
The free masks delivered by the Austrian government will not meet the same medical standards as those used on the front line by doctors and nurses, but Vienna hopes that by forcing citizens to cover their noses and mouths in public, even if with simple barriers, will have a meaningful impact on transmission of the virus.
Advice from the Austrian government’s medical advisers indicates the new coronavirus is likeliest to be spread through larger droplets ejected by coughing and sneezing — which a rudimentary mask might impede — rather than in smaller aerosol particles that the body sheds through breathing alone that could only be stopped by more sophisticated means. The Red Cross has issued guidance in Austria to citizens on how they can make their own masks at home.
“It would be a mistake to think that such masks protect you,” Mr Kurz added. “But the airborne transmission is somewhat reduced. This is not a substitute for [social] distancing.”
Austria’s has been among the most aggressive governments in Europe in taking action to curb public life in order to stop the pandemic: the approach — which has even included sequestering tourists in hotels in designated quarantine zones such as Tyrol — has yielded Mr Kurz’s government plaudits at home. It stands in contrast to the more laissez-faire approach adopted in the UK and Sweden.
Police in Austria have rigorously enforced stay-at-home rules and movement restrictions: according to the interior ministry, more than 10,426 cautions have been given.
The government has said it will not even consider the rollback of restrictions until the daily growth rate of new coronavirus cases falls below 1 per cent. As of Monday morning, Austria had recorded 8,813 confirmed Covid-19 cases — with 108 deaths. The growth rate has decreased over the past two weeks, from roughly 40 per cent in mid-March, to 11 per cent.
“The truth is, it’s a marathon and it’s not our job to just say what you want to hear,” Mr Kurz said.
Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in Paris, Miles Johnson in Rome, James Shotter in Warsaw and Valerie Hopkins in Budapest