VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrians flocked to cafes and beer gardens for the first time in more than six months on Wednesday, heaving a collective sigh of relief at a broad easing of coronavirus restrictions that put eating and drinking out back on the menu.
After repeated lockdowns and stubbornly high infections, new daily cases have fallen below 1,000 in recent weeks for the first time since October as accelerating vaccinations and warmer weather have kicked in.
The reopenings gave comfort to the nation that prides itself on Viennese cafes and wood-panelled guesthouses churning out beer and schnitzel.
"It is a day of joy after a months-long dry spell," Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters as he and several ministers arrived at a beer garden in Vienna while waiters carried trays of foam-topped pints shoulder-high.
Kurz has come under pressure for the slow pace of vaccinations and even criticised the European Union's system of collective purchases for distributing doses unevenly. Austria did not buy all the vaccines it could have under that system but it has remained around or above the EU average.
"I cannot describe my joy. My endorphins are off the charts!" said a waiter known as Mr Otto at Cafe Korb as he prepared for a wave of arrivals who had reserved despite unseasonally cold weather.
While foreign tourists have yet to return to the Austrian capital, cafes relied on their regular visitors for the time being. Hotels are also allowed to take in non-business travellers as of Wednesday.
"For us today is a special day after going without for so long," pensioner Uschi Hummer said as she had breakfast in Cafe Mozart. "We had to have a proper coffee out of china and not out of a mug, to treat ourselves."
(Reporting by Francois Murphy, Leonhard Foeger and Lisi Niesner,; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)