On Monday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz held a news conference with the country's health minister in which they unveiled a new policy on the safety of Austria's supermarkets amid the coronavirus pandemic. The country, which neighbors hard-hit Italy, will begin distributing basic disposable face masks outside all of its grocery stores as a precautionary measure to prevent people from spreading the virus to others through coughing or sneezing near food.
"These masks are handed out in front of supermarkets," Kurz said, according to Reuters. "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.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz gives a press conference in Vienna about the coronavirus pandemic on March 30, 2020. ROLAND SCHLAGER/APA/AFP via Getty Images
The masks are below medical grade, but Kurz said the new mandate would hopefully help slow the rate of infection.
According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins, Austria has had more than 9,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 108 deaths — not nearly as many as other nearby European countries like Spain, Germany, Switzerland or France. Still, Kurz warned that the country's health care system would likely be overwhelmed by mid-April if the current rate of infection was not curbed.
"I am fully aware that masks are alien to our culture," he said. "This will require a big adjustment."
A woman wears a face mask as she shops at Meidlinger Markt market in Vienna on March 30, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. HERBERT P. OCZERET/APA/AFP via Getty Images
In much of Asia, officials have been advising the public to wear face masks in public for months. Hong Kong, for example, issued the order back in January when the coronavirus outbreak first exploded in Wuhan, China.
"The big mistake in the U.S. and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren't wearing masks," George Gao Fu, the director general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week in an interview with the journal Science. "This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role — you've got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth."
In the United States, however, public health officials have not recommended wearing masks for the general public — instead, they urge that face masks be reserved for medical workers and caregivers for people who are known to be infected.
Shortly after Kurz's announcement, Germany signaled that it too might ask citizens to wear face masks in public once the country's lockdown measures are eased.
According to Reuters, Hanno Kautz, a spokesman for the German health ministry, was asked Monday at a regular news conference whether Germany was considering following Austria in requiring shoppers to wear non-medical face masks in supermarkets. Kautz responded that doing so could help protect others from contracting the illness if the person wearing the mask was infected.