Increasing Removal of the COVID-19 Pandemic from the Public Sphere. Observations during the fourth Austrian Shutdown.

Another update by Karsten Lehmann.

This is the third post of series of small texts on what the author, Karsten Lehmann, has described as the ‘communicative genre’ of the shutdown-notes during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will once again deal with the short texts put into the shop-windows of small businesses in one of the one-digit districts (Bezirke) of Vienna. These texts have been legitimizing and explaining the closure of the respective businesses during the Austrian shutdowns.

This third analysis documents a dynamic change in the usage of these types of notes. During the first shutdown, more than half of the shop-owners put notes into their display windows. Almost all these notes highlighted the fact that the shop-owners were forced to shutdown their businesses due to state regulations. During the second and third shutdown, the majority of the notes were still focusing on the necessity to react to state regulations. The number of shutdown-notes, however, declined significantly.

And this process continues with regards to the fourth shutdown (from April 17th to May 2nd 2021) that will be analyzed here. During the fourth shutdown, there were only very few notes under display. This stands for a removal of the pandemic from public space. It might also be interpreted as a decrease in the perception that a COVID-shutdown needs legitimation – i.e. a normalization of this type of pandemic influence on the professional life of the shop-owners. It does not imply that the shutdowns are perceived as less problematic.

Few Changes in the Street under Analysis

In the my first analysis of the shutdown-notes, I have been arguing that those little notes provide a very specific, yet hopefully significant and interesting, empirical insights into the socio-cultural construction of the COVID-19 pandemic. They build upon an already existing communicative genre and use it to display a professional, public response to the pandemic.

As in the previous analyses, the following considerations are based upon the shutdown-note under display in one street of a one-digit district in Vienna. At the time of data-collection (that was April 29th 2021 – i. e. one week before the re-opening of the shops at the end of the fourth Austrian shutdown), the over-all situation in the street under analysis had not changed significantly from the time of the second / third shutdown.

Two businesses seemed to have closed down completely and two other business had a note in their front window indicating that they were ‘under reconstruction’. The majority of the businesses with shop windows in the street showed, however, no signs of significant changes and/or closure. Despite this basic continuity, the presentation of the shutdown-notes changed significantly.

Fundamental Changes in the Presentation of Shutdown-Notes

At the end of the fourth shutdown it has actually become possibly to distinguish between four types of reactions to the pandemic documented on the notes in the shop windows:

  • First, those thirteen shops that were open in December 2020 (e.g. pharmacies and grocery stores) were still open in April 2021 and did not have to put any shutdown-notes into their display windows.
  • Second, there were five shops that were closed but encouraged their customers to use different means of communication to get in touch (e.g. by sending an email or giving a call before collecting specific items). In the time-period between December 2020 and April 2021, the number of this type of notes increased from two to five.
  • Third, there were five shops that were still displaying shutdown-notes in their shop windows in April 2021. In other words: Their number decreased significantly between the second/third and the fourth shutdown from twenty-eight to five.
  • Fourth, this leaves us with 64 shops that had no shutdown-notes on display (excluding those two shops that seemed to have closed down completely). So, their number increased by almost a third in comparison to the situation in December 2020.

Interestingly enough, the five notes that were still under display in April 2021 covered a wide range of content – from a simple display of “We are closed from April 29th to May 18th (Which does, by the way, not correspond to the dates of the formal closure.) to the note you can read at the beginning of this text that (a) addresses the potential customers, (b) refers to the legal foundations of the shutdown, (c) highlights the need to close down the business, (d) adds the wish to stay save, (e) closes with a generic formula (“we are looking forward to see you again”) as well as (f) a signature.

To put this into a nutshell, the usage of the communicative genre of the shutdown-notes seems to have come to a close. The vast majority of the shop-owners seems to see no longer a need to legitimate the closure of their shops in the public realm. And this seems to be true with regards to the whole spectrum of businesses that had to shut down temporarily due to the pandemic. At least, there is no specific type of shutdown notes that is still used – while other types are not.

Totally Different Situation in the First District

To further asses this observation, it becomes necessary to underline, once again, that the above observations are restricted to one particular street under consideration. Interestingly enough, the usage of the shutdown-notes in this street seems to differ significantly from the usage of those notes in other parts of Vienna. While walking through one of the major shopping streets in the first district of Vienna, I was astonished to see that (also in April 2021) that almost all the shops were displaying shutdown-notes and that most of them provided rather detailed information.

This observation actually points towards a highly significant aspect of the socio-cultural constructions of the pandemic. The constructions of the pandemic vary significantly. This can be explained by different life situations, different perceptions of the pandemic or different ways in which people perceived their own needs to present their perceptions in the public. In any case, the comparison underlines that the social realities of the pandemic are certainly not uniform, and neither are the motives that led to the writing and presentation of shutdown-notes.

Removal of the Pandemic from a specific Segment of Public Spere

In sum, these observations stress that a specific type of shop-owners does no longer see a need to put shutdown-notes into shop windows. This documents a significant decrease in the need to publicly legitimate the close of one’s business due to state regulations aiming at a containment of the pandemic. And this process seems to be almost all-inclusive. Public COVID-related shutdown-notes that were everywhere during the first shutdown have been rarely used during the fourth shutdown, at least in the street under analysis.

The notion of ‘the public’ is important here: The removal of shutdown-notes from public space does not imply that the policies or politics concerning the pandemic are no longer in need of legitimation. The removal of the shutdown-notes just documents that this seems to be no longer (or at least: much less) important for the presentation of businesses in public space. Actually, it might very much be the case that the ascription of the shutdowns to the government – and corresponding forms of fundamental criticism – are still very much around, and they just have been removed from the public.

In addition to this, it is important to underline the diversity of constructions of the pandemic in the shutdown-notes. This diversity documents the multiple ways in which the pandemic is perceived – first, among the shop-owners of the street under analysis and, second, among the shop-owners in different parts of the city. It would be misleading to re-construct one general tendency of these activities. It rather is the plurality of constructions of the pandemic that will be an important aspect of the socio-cultural developments that will happen in the future.

Prof. Dr. habil. Karsten Lehmann is Research Professor for inter-religiousness at the Kirchliche Pädagogische Hochschule Vienna/Krems (KPH), member of the RaT-Research Center, and Guest Professor for Religious Studies at the University of Greifswald / Germany.


Photograph (redacted to preserve rights of shop owners) by Karsten Lehmann.


Rat-Blog Nr. 19/2021

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