Austrian supermarkets on Wednesday began handing out basic face masks to largely compliant shoppers before they become compulsory next week, though there remained some confusion about the new measure and uncertainty about its usefulness in fighting the coronavirus.
The masks are below medical grade, but Kurz said the new mandate would hopefully help slow the rate of infection.
"I am fully aware that masks are alien to our culture," he said. "This will require a big adjustment."
Neighboring Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which have far fewer cases, have introduced a more sweeping measure, making face masks compulsory outside the home. Support for wearing masks in public appears to be rising across Europe.
“I believe he is right. Yes, Kurz is handling this correctly,” a shopper at a Vienna supermarket who gave only her first name, Martina, said after putting on a free mask.
Austria borders Italy, one of the world’s hardest-hit countries but moved earlier in its outbreak to shut down schools, bars and other gathering places. Its more than 10,000 cases have yet to overwhelm its health system, but Kurz says that could happen in two weeks. There have been 146 deaths so far.
Kurz says the aim is to prevent the wearer coughing or sneezing on others and infecting them. The measure has been widely supported. The head of the opposition Social Democrats said masks should also be compulsory on public transport.
Masks will be compulsory in supermarkets and drug stores of more than 400 square meters as of Monday.
Shortly after Kurz's announcement, Germany signaled that it too might ask citizens to wear face masks in public once the country's lockdown measures are eased.
Hanno Kautz, a spokesman for the German health ministry, was asked Monday at a regular news conference whether Germany was considering following Austria in requiring shoppers to wear non-medical face masks in supermarkets. Kautz responded that doing so could help protect others from contracting the illness if the person wearing the mask was infected.
The city of Jena in eastern Germany has decided to make people wear face masks when shopping or traveling on public transport, stepping up efforts to curb coronavirus contagion and becoming the first city in the country to introduce the measure.
Jena, which has 119 coronavirus infections and an overall population of about 110,000, decided to follow the example of Austria.
“In a week’s time, wearing mouth and nose protection in shops in Jena, on public transport and buildings with public traffic will be compulsory,” Jena City Hall said in a statement.
Given shortages of protective masks, the city in the state of Thuringia said towels or scarves wrapped over peoples’ mouths and noses would be acceptable, and it encouraged individuals to sew their own.
Trump said that Americans “can wear scarves” in lieu of masks.
“You know, you can use a scarf. A lot of people have scarfs, and you can use a scarf. A scarf would be very good. My feeling is if people want to do it, there’s certainly no harm to it. I would say do it, but use a scarf if you want, rather than going out and getting a mask or whatever, we're making millions and millions of masks," Trump said when asked if he would recommend all Americans wear masks.
The panel's chair, Prof David Heymann, told BBC News that the new research may lead to a shift in advice about masks.
He said that if the evidence is supported, then "it might be that wearing a mask is equally as effective or more effective than distancing."
But he adds a warning that masks need to be worn properly, with a seal over the nose. If they become moist, Prof Heymann explained, then particles can pass through. People must remove them carefully to avoid their hands becoming contaminated.