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As COVID-19 cases surge, Austria orders a lockdown of the unvaccinated


COVID infections in Europe are reaching record highs. And new lockdowns are being imposed on their citizens. In Austria, they're focusing new restrictions on the unvaccinated. So starting today, most unvaccinated Austrians will only be allowed to leave their homes to buy food, to work or in a case of an emergency.

NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now to talk about these new measures. Rob, so how are these new strict lockdowns going over in Austria?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: I think it depends on whether you're vaccinated or not.


SCHMITZ: Austria's vaccination rate is actually higher than it is in the United States. But about 35% of Austrians have not gotten the vaccine. And they took advantage of their final hours before their lockdown to take to the streets and protest this weekend. But Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schellenberg says he's been reassuring those who've been vaccinated that they'll continue to live life normally.


ALEXANDER SCHALLENBERG: (Through interpreter) The decisions taken today - the further steps - have no - I emphasize - no effect on the vaccinated, on the people who are protected. There is no doubt; there will be no lockdown for protected, vaccinated people.

SCHMITZ: But here's the problem. More than 3 million Austrians remain unvaccinated and are subject to these new lockdown rules. Starting today, police will be out conducting spot checks to make sure everyone has their digital vaccination certificates. And many have realized that life will be too difficult with these restrictions. A record 32,000 unvaccinated Austrians opted to get their first shot the day after this new lockdown was announced.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. What about elsewhere in the region? How are other governments in Europe responding to the surge?

SCHMITZ: The Dutch government has decided to return to the lockdown measures of a year ago. Over the weekend, new rules limited hours for hairdressers, restaurants, bars and supermarkets. They've now got a limit of four guests per household. Sporting events are again banned from having fans attend. When Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced these new measures, protesters gathered outside the press conference and threw rocks, bottles and fireworks at police. But, like Austria, the Netherlands' seven-day incidence rate has never been this high. This latest wave of the pandemic has filled hospitals with COVID patients. And we are seeing health care systems throughout this part of Europe buckle under the pressure of all these new cases.

MARTÍNEZ: German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the public over the weekend, urging the unvaccinated in Germany to consider getting the vaccine. What's the situation like there?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Germany's seeing its worst infection rate since the pandemic began. Despite rolling out a big state-run vaccination campaign in the spring and summer, more than 20 million Germans - that's more than a quarter of the country's population - remain unvaccinated. Germany's health minister said last week this wave of the pandemic is a wave of the unvaccinated. It is especially bad in the southern state of Bavaria, where intensive care units are now more than 90% full. Merkel plans to meet with the country's state leaders this week to coordinate nationwide measures.

Germany's federal government has always been a little hesitant to issue centralized mandates, for historical reasons that go back to World War II. But individual cities and states are already rolling out strict guidelines. Today, Berlin implements new rules that only allow the fully vaccinated or those who have recovered from COVID to enter restaurants, cinemas and sports facilities. So we're already seeing tighter restrictions in Germany on a local level as this wave of the pandemic gets a lot worse.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Berlin. Rob, thanks a lot.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.