With the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic, many countries in Europe and the United States have changed their minds and began to require people to wear masks in public places. Austria requires people to wear masks when shopping in supermarkets, becoming the first country in Western Europe to require people to wear masks.
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.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Monday masks would soon be required in supermarkets and possibly later in public places in general.
“These masks are handed out in front of supermarkets,” Kurz said. “It will be compulsory to wear them in supermarkets.” He added that the goal was for people to wear them elsewhere in public, as well.
The masks are below medical grade, but Kurz said the new mandate would hopefully help slow the rate of infection.
“I am fully aware that masks are alien to our culture,” he said. “This will require a big adjustment.”
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 it could happen in two weeks. There have been 146 deaths so far.
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.
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