Austria is going into an immediate lockdown and will make vaccinations mandatory for citizens as it fights to stop another surge in the coronavirus pandemic.
The lockdown begins Monday across the entire country and will last for 10 days. It will be reassessed at that time and will most likely be extended for an additional 10 days if conditions have not significantly improved, officials said.
The lockdown means residents must remain in their homes except to buy groceries, visit the doctor, or exercise. Most stores will be closed, and all cultural events will be canceled.
The country will not close its borders, but visitors will be subject to the same restrictions. If someone is entering Austria to visit friends or relatives, that will be fine. But those looking for sightseeing, skiing, or other tourist activities will have no available options.
“There are too many political forces in this country, which vehemently, massively and publicly oppose (vaccination),” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told the Associated Press. “This is actually an attack on our health system. The results are overcrowded intensive care units and enormous human suffering.”
Austria has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe, with only about 66 percent of the population fully vaccinated. It is in the midst of a fourth wave of infections, with 15,809 new cases reported Friday, a single-day high for the country of just under 9 million residents.
Schallenberg said in addition to the lockdown, the government will make vaccination a requirement for all eligible citizens. They will have until February 1 to get the shots or face legal consequences, he said.
“Increasing the vaccination rate — and I think we’re all in agreement on this — is our only way to break out of this vicious cycle of viral waves and lockdown discussions for good,” Schallenberg said. “We don’t want a fifth wave. We don’t want a sixth and seventh wave.”
Austria’s mandate would be the strictest in Europe, although other countries are heading in the same direction. Mandates for healthcare workers and other government employees have taken effect in France and Great Britain, among other locations, and Slovakia recently announced unvaccinated individuals would be banned from stores and shopping malls.
Neighboring Germany is imposing similar restrictions as its infection rates are spiking. Health Minister Jens Spahn told the BBC it is “a national emergency that requires a combined national effort.”
The Netherlands, Bavaria, and the Czech Republic have all issued some form of lockdowns as well.
What this means for Americans wanting to visit Europe in the coming weeks and months remains unclear. If a winter surge occurs, as many health officials fear, borders could be closed or become increasingly difficult to cross.
Hans Kluge, Europe’s regional director of the World Health Organization, has warned of a difficult winter on the horizon.
“This public health emergency is far from being over,” Kluge said. “The current rise or cases in most countries in the region, caused by the combination of insufficient vaccination coverage, the easing of preventative measures, and the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant, shows that a hard winter is ahead of us.”