By Francois Murphy
VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria on Saturday announced a nighttime curfew and the closure of cafes, bars and restaurants to all but take-away service as a surge in coronavirus infections threatens to overwhelm its hospitals.
The Alpine country had a swift and effective lockdown during its first wave of infections in March but had held off similar action this month to help the economy, even as daily cases rose to several times the spring peak.
With daily infections at a record 5,627 on Friday, however - just short of the 6,000 level at which the government says hospitals will no longer cope - the conservative-led government was forced to act.
"We did not take this decision lightly but it is necessary," Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a news conference. The restrictions include an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and will be in effect from Tuesday until the end of November.
Factories, shops, kindergartens and primary schools will remain open, however, while secondary schools and universities will switch to distance learning. Exercise or walks will still be allowed after curfew.
Restaurants, bars and cafes may provide a take-away service only; theatres and museums will shut, as will indoor sports facilities such as gyms; hotels will close to all but a few guests such as business travellers.
Businesses forced to close will receive aid amounting to 80% of their sales a year earlier.
In the past two weeks, Austria had about as many cases as Britain or Italy, relative to its population, data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) shows. And there has been a rapid acceleration over the past week, with a 26% jump from Thursday to Friday.
"A barely controllable increase has begun," Health Minister Rudolf Anschober told the news conference, adding that infections were "de facto exploding".
Austria's measures closely resemble those being taken by neighbouring Germany, which has less than half its infection rate, according to the ECDC data.
Austria has already limited private indoor gatherings to six people and it is now adding a rule that no more than two households can meet.
"We can't say how strongly the population will support these measures and how strong their effect will be," Kurz said, adding that he aimed to start easing the restrictions gradually in December.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Ros Russell)