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Austria’s ski lifts will open on 24 December but hotels, bars and restaurants will remain closed throughout the holiday season, the government has announced.

A second lockdown has failed to dramatically lower coronavirus infection rates, which remain at around 5,000 new cases per day, but the Alpine nation will slowly begin reopening measures, starting with schools and shops on Monday.

“Our expectation is that we can push the infection rates down until Christmas so that we can celebrate a dignified Christmas and so that outdoor sports – the keyword being skiing – will be possible,” chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a press conference.

Hotels, bars and restaurants, however, will only reopen on 7 January, while Austria’s famous Christmas markets will be cancelled this year, Kurz said.

The winter ski season has been the subject of a Europe-wide debate as Germany, France and Italy pushed for a EU-wide ban on ski tourism until early January.

Kurz said that Austria, where more than 2,000 ski lifts are a major driver of the €15bn winter sports industry, had decided to allow skiing and other individual outdoor sports starting 24 December “so that the Austrian population has the chance to engage in sporting activity over the holidays”.

He said skiing was an outdoor sport whereas the majority of coronavirus infections can be traced back to private parties and meetings.

In the pandemic’s first wave, Austrian ski hotspots – above all the resort of Ischgl – were accused of failing to respond quickly enough to outbreaks and allowing thousands of infected tourists to travel home and spread the virus.

However, Kurz said the decision to allow lifts to open “has as little to do with Germany as it has to do with other neighbouring countries”.

The only other major ski destinations to open through the holidays in Europe are Switzerland’s, which has not imposed a lockdown despite high infection rates.

As part of the broader relaxation of anti-virus measures in Austria announced on Wednesday, museums and libraries will also reopen on 7 December, followed by cinemas and cultural venues on 7 January.

As of 7 December a night-time curfew will replace the current 24-hour restrictions on movement outside the home.

From 24 to 26 December and on 31 December, rules on gatherings will be eased to allow 10 people to meet, regardless of how many separate households they belong to.

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