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Austria says reopening shops has not accelerated coronavirus infections

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s first loosening of its coronavirus lockdown three weeks ago, in which thousands of shops reopened, has not led to a new spike in infections, though further vigilance is necessary, its health minister said on Tuesday.

Austrian Health Minister Rudolf Anschober attends a news conference during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Vienna, Austria, May 5, 2020. Roland Schlager/Pool via REUTERS

The Alpine republic acted early to tackle the viral pandemic, closing bars, restaurants, schools, theatres, non-essential shops and other gathering places seven weeks ago. That helped cut the daily increase in infections to less than 1% and keep deaths relatively low - with just 606 reported so far.

Buoyed by those numbers, on April 14 Austria became one of the first countries in Europe to loosen its lockdown, reopening DIY and garden centres as well as shops of up to 400 square metres - twice the playing area of a singles tennis court.

“We can now examine and assess the effects of April 14 and the following days very, very well and they show that we managed this first opening step excellently,” Health Minister Rudolf Anschober told a news conference.

“We have no indication of a noticeable increase in individual areas. The situation is very, very constant, very, very stable and that is a really very, very positive, good situation,” he said.

The daily increase in infections, he added, is 0.2%.

Current data do not reflect the impact of a more recent loosening from May 1 when hairdressers, other service providers and shops of more than 400 square metres were allowed to reopen. More steps are planned, with restaurants, bars, museums and hotels all due to reopen this month.

Anschober and Interior Minister Karl Nehammer urged the public to keep implementing social-distancing rules and heed a requirement to wear face masks or a fabric equivalent in shops, on public transport and in some government buildings.

“Personal responsibility and discipline remain the most important thing because a possible second wave (of infections) must not become a tsunami,” Nehammer said.

Illustrating the uncertainty around the pandemic’s development, Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel said it would probably not be possible to assess the impact on the economy until autumn. He is in the process of getting his stopgap budget approved by parliament.

“Currently only one thing is clear: that nothing is clear and the situation must be reassessed daily. And no matter what numbers a budget is currently based on, they will not hold,” Bluemel said in a statement. He urged lawmakers to approve his already outdated budget to keep ministries properly funded.

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich