Austria extends COVID-19 lockdown, sees hard months ahead


FILE PHOTO: Snowboarders ascend the mountain as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Stuhleck, Austria December 31, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria on Sunday extend its third COVID-19 lockdown into February, hoping to drive down infection rates despite an influx of variants that spread the coronavirus more easily.

The goal is to let shops, museums and personal services like hairdressers reopen from Feb. 8, while the catering and tourism sectors will stay shuttered until at least March.

Ski lifts remain open, while schools will resume in-person instruction after the semester break next month.

"We have two to three hard months ahead of us," Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a news conference, flanked by regional leaders and health officials in a show of unity a day after thousands marched in Vienna to protest against restrictions.

Austria, a country of 8.9 million people, is in its third lockdown, with only essential shops open. The country has reported nearly 390,000 coronavirus cases and almost 7,000 COVID-19-linked deaths since the pandemic began last year.

The government said it wants to get new infections down to 50 per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period, from 130 now. That would be the equivalent of just below 700 new cases per day as it ramps up testing and vaccinations of vulnerable people.

Kurz left open the prospect of extending the lockdown if case numbers remain stubbornly high.

"At a time of a pandemic there are no guarantees," he said.

The government said people should work from home where possible, doubled to two metres the distance people must stay away from others, and instructed the population to wear FFP2 masks in stores and on public transport from Jan. 25.

Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel said companies hit by the restrictions could get extra state aid covering up to 30% of lost revenue, capped at 60,000 euros ($72,468) per month.

The government had already paid out 2.4 billion euros in aid to 129,000 companies. In total, Austria had paid or set aside more than 31 billion euros to help companies and preserve jobs, he said.

($1 = 0.8280 euros)

(Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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