“The outcry was great when Mecklenburg-Vorpommern’s Minister of Economic Affairs Harry Glawe (CDU) announced at the weekend in Die Welt AM SONNTAG that he wanted to abolish the mask requirement in shops because of the low level of infection in his state. German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) was challenged just as much as Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) and SPD chairmen Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken. The common tenor: it is still too early for such a relaxation.
They should feel confirmed by a message from Austria. The state of Upper Austria, the third largest in the neighbouring country, is reintroducing mask duty after a noticeable increase in Corona infections from Thursday – even in shops. Elsewhere in Austria, customers and employees still do not have to wear masks in shops, as they have not since mid-June. Clemens Auer, Special Representative of the Ministry of Health in Vienna and member of the Executive Council of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, was instrumental in the easing.
WORLD: Mr Auer, are the Austrians reckless?
Clemens Auer: No, not at all. To date, we have not seen any easing measures in Austria have led to an increase in the number of new infections – not even the abolition of the requirement to wear masks in trade.
WORLD: But the number of new infections in Austria has recently risen again.
Auer: That’s right. But the outbreak situations are limited to narrow clusters, namely Upper Austria and Vienna – a free church in Linz and three slaughterhouses as well as some businesses and nursing homes in Vienna. This has nothing to do with the relaxation of the compulsory mask in trade, but with the fact that people there live and work very closely together in sometimes questionable circumstances.
WORLD: In Upper Austria, there will again be a mask requirement in shops from Thursday.
Auer: Why wearing masks in shops can be useful is due to the psychology of attention. No masks mean for many people that everything is normal. The key to the fight against the virus is that policymakers remain credible at all times. If the number of infections changes as in the past seven days in Upper Austria, the politicians must review their approach. We in Austria also know that the virus has not disappeared.
WORLD: But in principle, is the obligation to wear masks in retail superfluous from your point of view?
Auer: The mask requirement makes sense wherever people from different households are in very confined spaces – less than one meter – and together for more than 15 minutes. That can be on the train or bus that can be on the office. There are no such situations in shops.
WORLD: Customers and employees also pass close by each other in shops.
Auer: They may even talk – but only briefly. From a purely epidemiological basis, I can say that there is not a single case in Austria where people have become infected in shops or where a business has been infected.
WORLD: So the German chancellor and the health minister are overcautious?
Auer: I can understand this caution. We health policymakers in particular are surrounded by epidemiologists, infectiologists and virologists. They prefer to exclude even the smallest residual risk in order to always be on the safe side.
WORLD: Politics has to ignore this, do you think?
Auer: We in the Ministry of Health were also not happy when the discussion about the relaxation of the mask obligation arose in Austria. The pressure came from the economy. Customers no longer buy anything with mask, complained the trade, are not motivated.
WORLD: That was the stronger argument for you than the risk of infection?
Auer: You can also break your finger while drilling your nose, my grandmother would have said. Of course, someone in the store can cough when another customer passes them. But the probability that his sputum – the droplets that come out of his mouth – will end up directly on another customer’s lip is very low. And then the coughing customer has to carry the virus first. This probability is also very low, given the overall low level of infection in Austria.