German May Day protesters defy social distancing rules

Protestors wearing face masks gather during a demonstration on May Day, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Berlin, Germany May 1, 2020. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 1, 2020 - 21:30

By Christian Mang

BERLIN (Reuters) - Hundreds of people gathered in a square in Berlin on Friday to mark May Day in defiance of a ban on public gatherings of more than 20, exposing deep frustrations with social distancing rules in place in Germany since mid-March to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Police blocked roads around the square in Berlin's Kreuzberg district, traditionally the centre of left-wing May Day protests that had turned violent in the past, to prevent more people from joining what a police spokeswoman said was an illegal gathering.

Leftist groups had called for the demonstration to denounce capitalism and urge more solidarity, especially with refugees seeking to reach Europe. They had urged participants to wear masks and stay at least 1.5 metres apart.

"Saving lives is not a crime," read a giant red banner dangled from a window, in a reference to the rescue ships saving refugees trying to reach Europe.

Berlin police, which had deployed 5,000 officers in the capital, stood calmly in the square where many of the mainly young protesters wore masks and many others drank beer, smoked or pushed their bikes.

It was a rare scene of normality after weeks where most streets were deserted because of the lockdown.

Most of those gathered appeared to be keeping a safe distance from one another. Riot police watched from a distance as a police helicopter circled overhead.

"We have prevented the parade from growing bigger and are using loudspeakers to urge people to disperse," the police spokeswoman said, adding that the situation remained largely peaceful.

Several demonstrations approved by police had taken place earlier across the German capital. Police arrested six people after a group of youths attacked a camera crew of national broadcaster ZDF, the police spokeswoman said.

Germany has been slowly easing its way out of a six-week lockdown. Playgrounds, museums and churches will open from Monday to go with the small shops that reopened this week.

An overwhelming majority of Germans back the lockdown enforced by the country's 16 states and backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, despite its heavy toll on the economy, which is expected to contract by a record of more than 6% this year.

Germany has handled the pandemic more successfully than the United States, Britain and Italy, partly thanks to widespread virus testing, a strong healthcare system and strict lockdown measures introduced in mid-March.

(Writing by Joseph Nasr. Editing by Jane Merriman)

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