VIENNA (Reuters) – A crowd of around 200 defied a police ban to gather in central Vienna on Friday for a protest against Austria’s coronavirus lockdown.
The restrictions have been in place for more than a month and helped flatten the curve of infections. The government shut bars, restaurants, schools and non-essential shops, allowing some shops to reopen last week in a first easing of the curbs.
The protest’s organisers, the Initiative for Evidence-Based Corona Information (ICI), want the lockdown ended.
They argue, among other things, that wearing face masks and fabric equivalents that are compulsory in shops and on public transport is counter-productive.
Public gatherings of more than five people remain banned, and a demonstration of five people was registered in the city for Friday afternoon. However, police then banned it, saying more would come and organisers could not guarantee to respect social distancing rules.
While anti-lockdown demonstrations have not become a feature of the outbreak in Europe, in the United States protesters have taken to the streets in several states. Public health officials there have warned against a premature easing of social distancing orders.
In Vienna on Friday a crowd that a Reuters photographer estimated at around 200 assembled on a square behind the Vienna State Opera, chanting slogans including “We are the people” and “Kurz must go”, referring to conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
After looking on for an hour, police dispersed the crowd, checking the identities of those who stayed. There was one arrest, a spokesman said.
ICI urged people to respect the ban on Friday’s event but said it would register “a new, bigger demo” for a week’s time.
While there has been some criticism of some aspects of Austria’s lockdown, the opposition and public have been largely supportive, though the far-right Freedom Party now says the measures are too intrusive.
Polls suggest that during the pandemic there has been an increase in support for Kurz and his party, which is in coalition with the left-wing Greens.
The lockdown has also help cut the daily increase in infections to less than 2%, which the government says justifies the planned step-by-step reopening of shops, restaurants, bars, schools, museums and churches.
Austria has reported 530 coronavirus-related deaths so far, fewer than some larger countries have reported daily.
(Reporting by Leonhard Foeger and Francois Murphy; editing by John Stonestreet)