BRUSSELS — This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries.

With infections spiking again despite nearly two years of restrictions, the health crisis increasingly is pitting citizen against citizen — the vaccinated against the unvaccinated.

Governments desperate to shield overburdened healthcare systems are imposing rules that limit choices for the unvaccinated in the hope that doing so will drive up rates of vaccinations.

Austria on Friday went a step further, making vaccinations mandatory as of Feb. 1.

“For a long time, maybe too long, I and others thought that it must be possible to convince people in Austria, to convince them to get vaccinated voluntarily,” Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said.

He called the move “our only way to break out of this vicious cycle of viral waves and lockdown discussions for good.”

While Austria so far stands alone in the European Union in making vaccinations mandatory, more and more governments are clamping down.

Starting Monday, Slovakia is banning people who haven’t been vaccinated from all nonessential stores and shopping malls. They also will not be allowed to attend any public event or gathering and will be required to test twice a week just to go to work.

“A merry Christmas does not mean a Christmas without Covid-19,” warned Prime Minister Eduard Heger. “For that to happen, Slovakia would need to have a completely different vaccination rate.”

He called the measures “a lockdown for the unvaccinated.”

Slovakia, where just 45.3 percent of the 5.5 million population is fully vaccinated, reported a record 8,342 new virus cases on Tuesday.

It is not only nations of central and eastern Europe that are suffering anew. Wealthy nations in the west also are being hit hard and imposing restrictions on their populations once again.

“It is really, absolutely, time to take action,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday. With a vaccination rate of 67.5 percent, her nation is now considering mandatory vaccinations for many health professionals.

Greece, too, is targeting the unvaccinated. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced a battery of new restrictions late Thursday for the unvaccinated, keeping them out of venues including bars, restaurants, cinemas, theaters, museums and gyms, even if they have tested negative.

“It is an immediate act of protection and, of course, an indirect urge to be vaccinated,” Mitsotakis said. (AP)