Protests erupt over virus rules in Austria, Italy, Croatia

  • Hundreds of people take part in a demonstration against the country's coronavirus restrictions Saturday in Vienna, Austria. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

VIENNA — 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 skyrocketing coronavirus infections.

Demonstrations against virus restrictions also took place in Switzerland, Croatia, Italy, Northern Ireland and the Netherlands on Saturday, a day after Dutch police opened fire on protesters and seven people were injured in rioting that erupted in Rotterdam. Protesters rallied against coronavirus restrictions and mandatory COVID-19 passes needed in many European countries to enter restaurants, Christmas markets or sports events, as well as mandatory vaccinations.

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The Austrian lockdown will start Monday and comes as average daily deaths have tripled in recent weeks and hospitals in heavily hit states have warned that intensive care units are reaching capacity. The lockdown will last at least 10 days but could go up to 20, officials said. People will be able to leave their homes only for specific reasons, including buying groceries, going to the doctor or exercising.

The government also will make vaccinations mandatory starting Feb. 1. Not quite 66% of Austria’s 8.9 million people are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.

Saturday’s march started off at Vienna’s massive Heldenplatz square. Chanting “Resistance!” and blowing whistles, protesters moved down the city’s inner ring road. Many waved Austrian flags and carried signs mocking Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg and Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein. Some wore doctor’s scrubs; others donned tinfoil hats. Most signs focused on the vaccine mandate: “My Body, My Choice,” read one. “We’re Standing Up for Our Kids!” said another.

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.

About 1,300 police officers were on duty, and 35,000 protesters participated in different marches across the city, police said. Police said several protesters were detained, but didn’t give specific numbers.

Later Saturday night, protesters threw bottles and beer cans and fired pyrotechnics at police, who then used pepper spray to disperse the crowds.

Freedom Party leader Herbert Kickl, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, appeared via video, denouncing what he called “totalitarian” measures from a government “that believes it should think and decide for us.”

Schallenberg apologized to all vaccinated people on Friday, saying it wasn’t fair they had to suffer under the renewed lockdown restrictions.

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“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 discriminatory, public broadcaster SRF reported.

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