Thousands protest against Austria’s nationwide Covid lockdown

Ahead of Austria's national lockdown on Monday, crowds gathered in the nation's capital on Saturday to protest against the new Covid restrictions and compulsory vaccination.

Demonstrators hold up placards reading 'Stop measures immediately' and 'Don't touch our children' during a rally held by Austria's far-right Freedom Party FPOe against the measures taken to curb the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, at Heldenplatz square in Vienna, Austria on November 20, 2021. - Austria will impose a lockdown for all and make vaccinations mandatory, Austria's Chancellor Schallenberg announced on November 19, making the country the first in the EU to take such stringent measures as coronavirus cases spiral. The Alpine nation plans to make Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory from February 1 next year, while the lockdown will start from Monday, November 22 and will be evaluated after 10 days.
Demonstrators hold up placards reading 'Stop measures immediately' and 'Don't touch our children' during a rally held by Austria's far-right Freedom Party FPOe Photo by Joe Klamar / AFP

Riots took place in the early afternoon in Vienna on Saturday, as protestors set off smoke bombs and threw bottles and cans at the police.

The authorities have already arrested ten people under the Prohibition Act, reported newspaper Kronen Zeitung.

In total, over 1,300 officers and some police dogs have been deployed, both from Vienna and the provinces, in response to those demonstrating against the nationwide lockdown due to come into force on Monday.

Some 40,000 people came out to protest in Austria.

Key points: How will Austria’s new national lockdown work?

The Austrian government on Friday announced that the country will go into its fourth lockdown and will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory, as leaders again pleaded with the public to get vaccinated.

Since the announcement, thousands gathered at a rally held by Austria’s far-right Freedom Party FPÖ, waving Austrian flags and signs that argued for an end to the measures. Several demonstrators were restrained by police officers.

“It’s not normal that the government deprives us of our rights,” said 42-year-old teacher Katarina Gierscher, who travelled for six hours to attend the rally.

Some protesters wore a yellow star reading the words “not vaccinated”, in a nod to the Star of David many Jews were forced to wear during the Nazi era.

Austria’s Interior Minister Karl Nehammer expressed his outrage, saying in a statement that it “insults the millions of victims of the Nazi dictatorship and their families”.

Some have shared videos of the protest on social media, describing the new restrictions and future compulsory vaccination as a ‘Corona dictatorship’, while claiming that people want their freedom.

At protests with more than 50 participants, everyone must wear an FFP2 mask, unless all participants have a 2G certificate.

Under the lockdown rules, people aged over 12 without proof of 2G (full vaccination or recovery, or a first vaccine dose plus a negative PCR test) may not leave their homes except for essential reasons such as work or buying food.

Many of the demonstrators were reportedly not wearing a mask, but officials have been making identity checks throughout the afternoon.

READ ALSO: ‘Unavoidable’: How Austria has reacted to the new nationwide lockdown

Citizens were warned of temporary traffic disruption and road closures, while people were advised there could be restrictions to the public transport system.

Meanwhile, other cities in Austria also held demonstrations. In Innsbruck, thousands gathered. 

Austria’s nationwide general lockdown will start on Monday and will be reviewed after the first ten days. It will last for “a maximum” of 20 days for vaccinated people. This means it will end on December 13th if no further changes are made.

However, the lockdown for unvaccinated people is set to continue after the end of the general lockdown if judged necessary.

Schools will remain open during the lockdown, although children are advised to stay home wherever possible.

Covid-19 in Austria: Follow the latest developments as they happen

Shops and restaurants will be forced to close, while working from home will be mandatory in any job where it is possible to do so. 

Other new rules include the mandatory wearing of FFP2 masks in all enclosed rooms. Anyone found breaking the rules will face fines.

Everyone in Austria will need to be vaccinated from February 1st onwards, the government has also announced.

The new measures were announced after Austria recorded another all-time high for new daily cases on Thursday, with 15,145 cases reported in 24 hours.

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Does Austria have a street car racing problem?

A fatal accident involving a speeding driver in the streets of Austria's capital Vienna has once again sparked the debate about illegal car racing in the country.

Does Austria have a street car racing problem?

A 26-year-old man sped through the streets of central Vienna in his Mercedes on a Sunday evening.

After he failed to stop at a red light he mowed into a car being driven by a 48-year-old woman. She later died in hospital.

The police had said a video recorder at the time of the accident showed evidence the driver was taking part in some kind of illegal race. Even though a Vienna court later said it saw “no evidence at all” that indicates street racing, the debate was already ignited.

Does Austria, and especially Vienna, have an illegal car racing problem?

According to the Viennese police, there are no statistics specifically for street racing. However, “there is an active racing scene in Vienna”, spokesperson Markus Dittrich told The Local.

READ ALSO: What happens if you get arrested in Austria?

Estimates put the number of “members of the illegal scene” in Vienna between 800 to 1,000 people. Current hotspots are still the area around Kahlenberg, Triester Straße, the Oberlaa area and the Kagran business park.

The police measured instances of speeding and from April to August 2022, around 6,500 reports were placed in the capital and 30 driving licenses were confiscated on site.

What are the police currently doing?

“In order to take decisive action against the active racing scene, checks have been significantly increased.”

“Furthermore, coordinated traffic planning checks are being carried out by the Vienna police department and various city police commands, and the relevant municipal departments are also involved”, Dittrich said.

In August, the City of Vienna took action in one of the “hotspots” for racing, adding 65 concrete barriers to prevent races in the car park in Kahlenberg, as The Local reported.

As racers move to different areas once blocks are put in place, the police also resort heavily on the two consequences it can impose: high fines and the revocation of driving licenses.”.

READ ALSO: Vienna wants to take action against speeding drivers

Fines can reach up to €5,000 on higher offences, such as driving 40 km/h or more over the speeding limit in a city (or 50 km/h above limits on a road). In addition, driving licences can be withheld for one month or three months in the case of repeated offences.

From an excess of 80 km/h, the license is taken away for half a year.

Calls for changes in the law

The recent debate in Austria has also now brought the issue of possible changes in the law, with experts claiming that the current legislation might not be sufficient.

Illegal racing is not a crime per se, but offences such as “endangering physical safety” or “deliberate endangerment of the public” are applied. If people are killed or injured, the crime is negligence – with up to three years in prison possible for those convicted of grossly negligent homicide.

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about driving on the autobahn in Austria

Some are asking for “zero tolerance“, saying that the crimes should not be seen as negligence but as murder – those who drive too fast or under the influence of alcohol take a risk knowing they might kill someone.

Others, however, say that turning negligence into murder holds a trap. “Attempted murder is also punishable. So the penalty for just participating in an illegal auto race where nothing happened? In practice, for example, 12 years in prison for 350 meters of a car race on Triester Straße?” wrote Constitutional Court member Dr Michael Rami on Twitter.

Still, the head of the legal services at Austria’s traffic authority ÖAMTC, Martin Hoffer, told public broadcaster ORF: “To prove murder against someone, you, of course, have to prove the corresponding intentionality”.

“That doesn’t mean a specific intention to kill a certain person, but to seriously consider it possible (and to accept) that someone may die in that situation.” So, a racing driver may not set out to kill someone, but they acknowledge that their actions could result in somebody’s death.

That could be a realistic scenario in an illegal race – and the debate in Austria continues.