BRUSSELS (AP) — Thousands of Belgian performers, cinema operators, event organizers and others joined together Sunday to protest the government’s decision to close down the country’s cultural life to stem the spread of the surging omicron variant.

Waving posters reading “The show must go on” or “No culture, no future,” the crowd demonstrated peacefully despite the pouring rain, accusing the government of unfairly targeting the culture industry with the new virus restrictions.

Under the measures, which took effect Sunday, events like Christmas markets are allowed to continue, despite their boisterous, chaotic gluhwein (mulled wine) parties, and restaurants and bars are allowed to stay open with some new restrictions.

Even the scientific committee advising the Belgian government had not asked for the culture industry closures, leaving virologist Marc Van Ranst to ponder that in Belgium “gluhwein beat culture.”

Scores of movie theaters and other venues disregarded the closure order, according to state broadcaster RTBF.

A brass band accompanied Sunday’s demonstration at the Mont des Arts in Brussels, the symbolic spot which spawned Belgian independence in 1830, and prominent cultural figures took to the stage to air their grievances. Organizers urged participants to wear masks and maintain social distancing. Authorities estimated 5,000 people took part and it ended peacefully.

Under the new rules, indoor public activities are strictly limited, shopping is curtailed and sports fans won’t be allowed into stadiums and indoor venues. The Belgian government shied away, however, from a full lockdown like that imposed in the neighboring Netherlands for the holiday season.

After almost two years of forced closures and limited openings, the culture sector had hoped its efforts, including special air quality meters in halls, separated seats and limited visitor capacities, would allow it to escape the brunt of the virus restrictions.

The Belgian measures come despite a steady decline in COVID-19 hospital admissions in recent weeks. The government said the fast transmission of the omicron variant made it necessary to take preventive measures.

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This story corrects the site of the protest to the Mont des Arts, not the Place de la Monnaie.

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