Austria is back in lockdown and Aussie opera singers are among those suffering

Wednesday night should have been full of excitement for Australian opera singer Margaret Plummer.

She was due to take centre stage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the world-renowned Staatsoper — the Vienna State Opera.

“It was such a beautiful show and we all worked so hard,” she told the ABC.

“We got to our final rehearsal in the room and then the Government locked us down.”

The grand 19th-century opera house is now eerily silent.

Australian freelance soprano Nicole Car was also starring at the Staatsoper in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

She performed three shows before production was shut down as part of sweeping measures to arrest the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases in Austria.

“It really came as a shock,” she said.

Vienna's State Opera house on a sunny day with blue sky in the background.Vienna's State Opera house on a sunny day with blue sky in the background.
The Vienna State Opera is eerily quiet in the wake of the Austrian Government shutting down all entertainment venues.(ABC News: Nick Dole)

On Tuesday, an 8:00pm to 6:00am curfew took effect, along with the closure of all theatres, cinemas, dine-in bars and restaurants.

“It makes it even more depressing the second time around,” Car said.

“It’s hard to find the will sometimes to keep going and keep practising.”

An empty outdoor cafe in the middle of ViennaAn empty outdoor cafe in the middle of Vienna
Restaurants and cafes are shut under strict new restrictions in Austria that will last until the end of November.(ABC News: Andrew Greaves)

Both singers say they were impressed with the COVID-19 measures which kept the opera house open so long.

“I would say I’ve had about 40 tests,” Plummer said.

“We had the feeling that the world was starting to do better and the arts were starting to come back,” Car said.

But in the last two weeks, COVID-19 cases in Austria have exploded.

Why is this a surprise?

Austria was proud of its COVID-19 measures.

When the first wave hit Europe, Austria announced a strict lockdown before some of its neighbours.

The Government faced early criticism for failing to control outbreaks on the ski slopes, thus allowing infected skiers to spread the virus throughout Europe.

However, as a whole, the lockdown was “very successful” according to Monika Redlberger-Fritz, a virologist at the Medical University of Vienna.

“We were the lead in implementing those lockdown measures,” she told the ABC.

“Within about two weeks, the number of infections went down again.”

Shops reopened, mask rules were relaxed and life returned to something approaching normal.

A testing official leans into a car at a drive-through COVID-19 tests site in Vienna.A testing official leans into a car at a drive-through COVID-19 tests site in Vienna.
Vienna residents line up in their cars for free COVID-19 tests.(ABC News: Nick Dole)

In Vienna, large drive-up testing centres were established, offering free testing regardless of whether people had symptoms or not.

But case numbers have come roaring back from a few dozen in May to a record 7,416 on Thursday.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz previously warned the hospitals would be overwhelmed once cases reached about 6,000.

“It doesn’t take very long to get to a breaking point where the increase is very steep,” Dr Redlberger-Fritz said.

“This is what’s happening now in Austria.”

She said she hoped the 8:00pm curfew and hospitality closures would be as effective as they were last time.

Viroligist Monika Redlberger-Fritz poses for a photo in Vienna.Viroligist Monika Redlberger-Fritz poses for a photo in Vienna.
Virologist Monika Redlberger-Fritz says Austria’s outbreak is at a critical point.(ABC News: Nick Dole)

“The next two weeks are very important because then we will see if the measurements are enough to prevent the overload of the healthcare system,” she said.

‘We have no tourists’

The night-time curfews and hospitality closures may crush the infection rate, but they are already crippling Viennese businesses that are heavily reliant on tourism.

Monday’s terrorist attack that killed four people in the city centre will only make matters worse.

In the shadow of the imposing St Stephen’s Cathedral, carriage driver Florian Knam waits for customers that never arrive.

Carriage driver Florian Knam poses with his two horses.Carriage driver Florian Knam poses with his two horses.
Carriage driver Florian Knam’s business has dried up due to a lack of tourists visiting Vienna.(ABC News: Nick Dole)

“Business is really bad. We have no tourists in the city,” he told the ABC.

“Normally the streets are full, the shops are open, the cafe houses are open.”

The city’s Christmas markets — a usually reliable source of income — will also be disrupted by the lockdown, which the Government plans to lift in December.

Mr Knam does not know whether he can last until then.

“It’s really bad, this situation,” he said.

“And not just for this business, for all people.”

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