Students sit at the study table in the Cafe Museum in Vienna.

The interior of central Vienna's Cafe Museum is much quieter than usual given its closure as part of the coronavirus lockdown-but the calm is all the more welcome for the students now nestling in its comfy red booths. With only the gentle strains of some jazz music intruding on the studious atmosphere, the cafe is one of several venues participating in a scheme run by the city administration to give school and university students somewhere quiet to work and escape the monotony of lockdown life.

The students are given time slots to use designated spaces dubbed "Lerntische" ("Learning Tables") in the cafes, whose doors have otherwise been shut since November 3. Cafe Museum, part of Vienna's iconic cafe culture since 1899, is not allowed to serve its new visitors any food or drink. But a bottle of water, small snacks and an internet connection are provided. Savanka Schwarz, a 23-year-old political science student, is one of those taking up the opportunity to work in the cafe's stylish interior after months of distance learning at home.

"There atmosphere makes a nice change, there's lots of space and it's very pleasant," she says, masked up and hands freshly disinfected. "It's good to have one place where you live and one place where you can work," she says, adding that the calm atmosphere of the cafe is a welcome change from her flatshare. "Here I can close my laptop, go home and I'm done," she adds.

'No barriers'

Even though Austria plans to ease some of its coronavirus restrictions starting from February 8, cafes and restaurants will remain closed for the time being. One of Cafe Museum's owners, Irmgard Querfeld, says she is "very happy" to welcome the students and that it was also "an investment in the future" if students keep coming back after the pandemic. "It's important that the space is still given a purpose despite the lockdown, that it can be of use," she says.

The "learning tables" are reserved online, with numbers limited to make sure distancing can be respected. Visitors younger than 15 have to be accompanied. "Principally, it's meant for those who don't have room or peace at home, or don't have wifi," says Vienna's education director, Heinrich Himmer. "But there are no barriers to access," he adds. He says the scheme has been enthusiastically taken up, with more than a thousand bookings for the "learning cafes". As part of the scheme, hotel rooms are also available as working spaces.

And Himmer, like Querfeld, hopes the scheme might have effects even once the pandemic is over. "Many Viennese writers used cafes to write their books or as their living rooms," he says. "Perhaps young people will get to know parts of the city which they wouldn't have otherwise and which they can return to even after the lockdown." - AFP