How Swiss police approach coronavirus crowd control

A police officer in Geneva telling people they shouldn’t be sitting on this lakeside jetty, pictured on April 17, 2020 Keystone / Martial Trezzini

Now that the lockdown measures have been relaxed, people in Switzerland are eagerly enjoying more days and evenings out. But as proprietors and guests fail – or forget – to comply with social distancing rules, some wonder why the police aren’t cracking down harder.

The combination of fine spring weather and a wave of re-openings has lured many people back to parks, shops, bars and restaurants. Sometimes there are far too many, considering the Covid-19 restrictions limiting groups to five people and calling for two metres of space between individuals.

+ Covid-19 and the situation in Switzerland

For example, large crowds partied for hours in Basel on Saturday night. The lack of police presence sparked criticism from many, including the bar that posted this video online:


Boisterous crowding like that witnessed in Basel is a no-go as Swiss authorities try to prevent a second wave of the deadly virus. Yet the images of the partygoers didn’t surprise Urs Hofmann, head of the Conference of Swiss Cantonal Justice and Police Department Directors (CCDJP).

“With the re-opening of restaurants and the general relaxation of measures, the whole situation is no longer as manageable as before,” Hofmann told Swiss public television, SRF. “It’s a big challenge for the police to radically enforce the five-person group and two-metre distance rules in public places.” He calls on the public to be more disciplined.

Baschi Dürr, Basel’s security director, has also appealed to people to be more careful when out in public.

“The police will ramp up their control activities, within the scope of their powers. They cannot always be everywhere,” Dürr told SRF. If necessary, he said the city would implement stricter measures, like temporarily closing any hotspots where “there are simply too many people for the two-metre rule to be observed”.

Fines and closures in Zurich

Last weekend there were no such scenes reported in Zurich, which has had 1,650 coronavirus-related police deployments in the past two months. These resulted in 600 fines – including to a couple holding hands in a park. As city security chief Karin Rykart told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) newspaper, the woman and man – who live together – were each fined CHF100 ($103) because they had failed to react when a police officer ordered everyone in the park to move apart.

“Most people walk away or keep their distance,” Rykart told the NZZ. “Maybe there’s a situation that isn’t clear; that can be. But the police can’t hold a legal seminar with people on the street every time.” She said that in some cases areas simply have to be closed for a while – including popular parks.

“In the city, public space is limited, and at the same time people are told that it’s OK to go outside, resulting in a lot of people in a small space,” Rykart said.

Value of local policing

Enforcing pandemic measures affects police nationwide. Considering how cantons and communities differ, the CCDJP’s Hofmann doesn’t think it makes sense to have a Swiss master plan for coronavirus crowd control.

“It’s a complete illusion to think that it’s possible to set absolutely clear guidelines for all police forces. But it’s clear that the police officers are in constant communication with each other,” he said.

A study of Switzerland’s police system underlines the importance of local policing.

“Cantonal and communal police forces are better able to assess the requirements to ensure the safety of the local communities. It is important that police officers as well as police commanders know and understand their environment as well as their communities and are capable of interacting with them,” wrote authors Sara Stocker and Lydia Amberg.

Last weekend’s flouting of safety measures in Basel was regrettable, notes city security head Dürr. “It would be such a pity if everything we’ve achieved up until now was in vain. We continue to appeal to the people’s sense of personal responsibility.”

With two long holiday weekends coming up this month, the police will likely be busier than most years. 

Social distancing

People in Switzerland are still expected to keep a distance of two metres apart. Groups are limited to five people. Restaurants have adjusted their furniture accordingly, and shoppers have to line up carefully to pay for purchases. Onboard trains, buses and trams, where it’s often not possible to maintain a safe distance, passengers are encouraged to wear face masks.

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