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Thousands in Vienna protest Austria's looming lockdown

Health officials brace for winter COVID surge
Health officials brace for winter COVID surge... 02:50

Thousands of protesters gathered in Vienna on Saturday after the Austrian government announced a nationwide lockdown beginning Monday to contain the country's skyrocketing coronavirus infections.

The far-right opposition Freedom Party was among those who have called for the protest and vowed to combat the new restrictions.

The Austrian lockdown will start early Monday. Initially it will last for 10 days and then it be reevaluated. At most it will last for 20 days, officials said. Most stores will close and cultural events will be canceled. People will be able to leave their homes only for certain specific reasons, including buying groceries, going to the doctor or exercising.

The Austrian government also said starting February 1, the Alpine nation will make vaccinations mandatory.

As the march kicked off on Vienna's Heldenplatz, thousands of protesters gathered on the massive square. About 1,300 police officers were on duty. They used loudspeakers to tell protesters masks were required, but most didn't wear them.

Chanting "Resistance!" and blowing whistles, protesters moved slowly 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.

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Demonstrators hold up a banner that reads, "The best slave is one that thinks they are free" as they take part in a rally measures taken to curb the coronavirus pandemic, in Vienna, Austria on November 20, 2021. JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images

Some wore doctor's scrubs; others donned tinfoil hats. Most of the signs focused on the newly announced vaccine mandate: "My Body, My Choice," read one. "We're Standing Up for Our Kids!" said another.

Freedom Party leader Herbert Kickl, who announced earlier this week that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and had to stay in isolation at home, made an appearance via video. He denounced 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 night, 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.

Demonstrations against virus measures were also expected in other European countries including Switzerland, Croatia and Italy. On Friday night, Dutch police opened fire on protesters and seven people were injured in rioting that erupted in Rotterdam around a demonstration against COVID-19 restrictions.  

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