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After lockdown, Austrians eager to shop for Christmas

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Vienna (AFP)

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had hoped that taking part in a mass Covid testing scheme on Monday would draw crowds, but the lure of stores reopened after weeks of lockdown proved stronger for many.

Though Chancellor Kurz called on people to "spread out shopping urges" across days, additional police had to be dispatched to ensure social-distancing and other measures were observed at malls.

Many shoppers, like subcontractor Robert Bauer, "couldn't wait with the shopping -- even if it might be a bit crowded today".

Since the lockdown came into effect on November 17, when the small country had one of the highest per capita number of new coronavirus cases, Bauer's family of four had been confined to their Vienna apartment as schools, stores, restaurants, bars and all cultural venues remained closed.

"And this morning, the kids were also really excited to return to school and for the younger one, to kindergarten,” Bauer's wife Petra said of their sons, 4-year-old Emilio and 8-year-old Ricardo, who will be finding a new game console under the Christmas tree.

With the numbers now down to above 3,000 new infections per day, the government aims to find hidden cases in a nationwide mass-testing scheme that kicked off in Vienna Friday.

So far, however, turnout has been low, and the minds of those who have grown weary of restrictions weren't changed by Kurz and Vienna Mayor Michael Ludwig getting tested under the gaze of national media Monday.

"I am increasingly uncertain if there is a point to it," said Gerhard, a 64-year-old retiree who was out to buy stamps, said of the government's strategy.

"There are still a lot of people who have this virus. And now they are all going outside to shop again. Look at them," he said, gesturing at the long queue in front of the post office.

Museums and libraries also reopened in Vienna Monday, but residents strolled past shuttered restaurants, cafes and bars that will remain closed until after the Christmas holidays.

As Wham's "Last Christmas" played in the background, Jelena and Ivan Markovics zipped past Christmas trees and decorations, heading straight to a furniture store that had advertised generous "post-lockdown" sales.

The couple has just moved into a new but completely unfurnished apartment and urgently needed a kitchen, Ivan said.

"We were really looking forward to the stores opening again so we can finally order our new furniture," he said.

Though the pandemic is causing that to be delayed, too, and their kitchen won't arrive for another eight weeks. So their Christmas dinner will be cooked on an old electric stove, but they will be seated on a new couch.

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