June 3, 2023

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Austria makes wearing coronavirus masks compulsory – but will there be enough?

out on Monday also wore masks. “I decided to do everything I possibly can to not get sick, because if I do, who is going to take care of him?” Bunyai tells The Independent, pointing to his son, who was born with Down’s syndrome.

Outings to the grocery store have been stressful because of the risk of catching Covid-19, Bunyai says, but, starting Tuesday morning, he hopes to feel some relief.

Across Austria, people entering grocery stores and supermarkets will be required to wear surgical masks starting today, the government announced. The masks, it said, would be available free-of-charge at every grocery store in the country.

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Surgical masks will keep people who are unaware that they carry the virus – those who are showing only very mild symptoms or none at all – from spreading it to others unwittingly, Austria’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, and health minister, Rudolf Anschober, said when they announced the measure.

Experts confirm that masks covering both mouth and nose would help diminish the risk of infection – provided that everyone wears them.

As of Tuesday, Austria has almost 10,000 cases of Covid-19, with more than 100 deaths. The country has been on lockdown since 16 March, with only essential stores allowed to remain open and police enforcing social-distancing measures.

Inside stores, however, keeping a safe distance is often impossible. Most grocery stores have already marked the floors in front of their cashiers with lines 1.5 metres apart and are asking customers to pay with cards, but these measures are not sufficient in protecting customers and staff.

“To tell you the truth, we’ve been scared – scared of our customers – because you just don’t know who has it,” an employee of a major grocery store chain in Vienna tells The Independent. Like many of her co-workers, she worries about coming home to her family after a day of interacting with hundreds of people.

“I’m really happy – relieved, actually – that they are making it mandatory,” she says.

In addition to free masks, customers are required to shop on their own rather than with family members or in groups, and stores must disinfect shopping carts after each use.

The employee, who was not authorised to speak to the media, says that she was not sure how her store would provide hundreds of masks each day, or whether staff could ensure that all carts are disinfected.

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The trade association estimates that around four million single-use masks will be needed daily to comply with the measure, making it a major logistical challenge for grocery stores.

The stores are happy to oblige, says Rainer Will­, head of the trade association, “as soon as sufficient quantities can be provided”.

With masks in high demand or unavailable in most parts of the world, some might not be able to get them before the end of the week or early next week, he says, and it’s unclear how long supplies will last.

Austria’s government has yet to provide details on how the measure will be enforced, or how it will support grocery stores in its implementation.

Assuming that it’s a collective measure, masks do help slow down the spread of the virus, Monika Redlberger-Fritz, head of the influenza department at the Medical University of Vienna, says.

“The way it is being introduced in Austria now, these mouth and nose masks are a way for everyone to protect the person next to them,” she says.

She cautioned against using DIY masks that only consist of fabric. “A lot of droplets would still get through, so you’d need to have at least a layer of fleece liner,” she says.

Shoppers on Tuesday, some of whom were already wearing masks, said that they fully support the measures.

“It’s great, and it’s necessary. Just look around, how tight the aisles are,” says Reinhard Bohm, standing between crisps and the deli counter. Bohm says he tried to get a mask, but they were sold out at the pharmacy. “So tomorrow morning, I expect that I will get one here,” he says. “Otherwise, how can I get one?”

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