VIENNA (AP) — Tens of thousands of protesters, many from far-right groups, marched through Vienna on Saturday after the Austrian government announced a nationwide lockdown beginning Monday to contain the country's skyrocketing coronavirus infections.
Among those protesting were members of far-right and extreme-right parties and groups, including the far-right Freedom Party, the anti-vaccine MFG party and the extreme-right Identitarians.
Demonstrations against virus restrictions were also taking place Saturday in Switzerland, Croatia and Italy. On Friday night, Dutch police opened fire on protesters and seven people were injured in rioting that erupted in Rotterdam against COVID-19 restrictions.
The Austrian lockdown will start Monday. Initially it will last for 10 days but it could go up to 20 days, officials said. Most stores will close and cultural events will be canceled. People will be able to leave their homes only for specific reasons, including buying groceries, going to the doctor or exercising.
The Austrian government also said starting Feb. 1, it will make vaccinations mandatory.
The march Saturday kicked off at Vienna’s massive Heldenplatz square. About 1,300 police officers were on duty, and 35,000 protesters participated in different marches across the city, police said, adding that most didn’t wear masks.
Chanting “Resistance!” and blowing whistles, protesters moved down the city’s inner ring road. Many waved Austrian flags and carried signs mocking government leaders like Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg and Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein. Some wore doctor’s scrubs; others donned tinfoil hats. Most signs focused on the upcoming vaccine mandate: “My Body, My Choice,” read one. “We’re Standing Up for Our Kids!” said another.
Freedom Party leader Herbert Kickl, who tested positive for COVID-19 this week and had to stay in isolation, made an appearance at the rally via video, denouncing what he called “totalitarian” measures from a government “that believes it should think and decide for us.”
Vaccinations in Austria have plateaued at one of the lowest rates in Western Europe and hospitals in heavily hit states have warned that their intensive care units are reaching capacity. Average daily deaths have tripled in recent weeks. Not quite 66% of Austria’s 8.9 million people are fully vaccinated.
Schallenberg apologized to all vaccinated people on Friday, saying it wasn't fair they had to suffer under the renewed lockdown restrictions when they had done everything to help contain the virus.
“I’m sorry to take this drastic step,” he said on public broadcaster ORF.
In neighboring Switzerland, 2,000 people protested an upcoming referendum on whether to approve the government’s COVID-19 restrictions law, claiming it was discriminary, public broadcaster SRF reported.
A day after the Rotterdam rioting, thousands gathered Saturday on Amsterdam’s central Dam Square to protest the government’s coronavirus restrictions, despite organizers calling off the protest. They walked peacefully through the city’s streets, closely monitored by police.
A few hundred protesters also marched through the southern Dutch city of Breda to protest lockdown restrictions. One organizer, Joost Eras, told Dutch broadcaster NOS he didn’t expect violence after consulting with police about security measures.
“We certainly don’t support what happened in Rotterdam. We were shocked by it,” he told NOS.
In France, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Saturday condemned violent protests in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, one of France’s overseas territories, over COVID-19 restrictions. Darmanin said 29 people had been detained by police overnight. Authorities were sending 200 more police officers to the island and on Tuesday will impose a nightly curfew from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Protesters in Guadeloupe have staged road blockades and set cars on fire. They denounce France's COVID-19 health pass that is now required to access restaurants and cafes, cultural venues, sport arenas and long-distance travel. They are also protesting France's mandatory vaccinations for health care workers.