The far-right opposition Freedom Party was among those who have called for the protest and vowed to combat the new restrictions.
As the march kicked off on Vienna’s Heldenplatz, thousands of protesters gathered on the massive square. About 1300 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 began to move 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.
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, according to government figures.
Austrian Chancellor 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.
In France, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Saturday condemned incidents in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, one of France’s overseas territories, where violent demonstrations broke out this week over COVID-19 restrictions. Darmanin said 29 people had been detained by police overnight. Authorities announced on Friday a decision to send 200 additional police officers on the island and a nightly curfew from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. to be imposed until Tuesday.
Protesters have staged road blockades and set street equipment and cars on fire. They denounce the COVID-19 health pass that is required to access restaurants and cafes, cultural venues, sport arenas and long-distance travel. They also protest mandatory vaccination for health care workers.
The pass shows that people are fully vaccinated, have had a recent negative test of proof of a recent COVID-19 recovery.