VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian supermarkets on Wednesday began handing out basic face masks to largely compliant shoppers before they become compulsory next week, though there remained some confusion about the new measure and uncertainty about its usefulness in fighting the coronavirus.
Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Monday masks would soon be required in supermarkets and possibly later in public places in general, a cultural shift for a country that introduced a ban on face-coverings like Muslim veils 18 months ago in the wake of Europe’s migration crisis.
Neighboring Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which have far fewer cases, have introduced a more sweeping measure, making face masks compulsory outside the home. Support for wearing masks in public appears to be rising across Europe.
“I believe he is right. Yes, Kurz is handling this correctly,” a shopper at a Vienna supermarket who gave only her first name, Martina, said after putting on a free mask.
Austria borders Italy, one of the world’s hardest-hit countries but moved earlier in its outbreak to shut down schools, bars and other gathering places. Its more than 10,000 cases have yet to overwhelm its health system, but Kurz says that could happen in two weeks. There have been 146 deaths so far.
The World Health Organization has questioned the use of an entire population wearing face masks to slow the coronavirus and said it can be counter-productive, since the wearer could infect themselves by putting it on or removing it incorrectly.
Kurz says the aim is to prevent the wearer coughing or sneezing on others and infecting them. The measure has been widely supported. The head of the opposition Social Democrats said masks should also be compulsory on public transport.
While the masks being handed out by supermarket chain Spar at its 1,500 locations in Austria resembled surgical masks and were easy to put on, national broadcaster ORF found staff at another chain had been given models that were difficult for any beginner to assemble.
“You have to put on one of these masks before you enter the supermarket. With all the good will in the world, I don’t see how that is supposed to work, especially if it really is this model,” ORF’s reporter said after struggling to assemble a mask and then squeezing it over the top of his head.
Masks will be compulsory in supermarkets and drug stores of more than 400 square meters as of Monday.
Reporting by Matteo Witt, Leonhard Foeger and Francois Murphy; Editing by Steve Orlofsky
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