Thousands of coronavirus sceptics have gathered in Berlin for a protest against pandemic restrictions that was allowed to go ahead after a bitter legal battle.
Police said they would turn out in force and strictly monitor compliance with mask wearing and social distancing. The city’s top officer, Barbara Slowik, said that if the demonstrators did not adhere to virus safety rules, police would clear the area very quickly.
“We will not be able or willing to watch tens of thousands assemble and create infection risks,” she said.
Berlin city authorities had previously decided not to allow the demonstration to go ahead, fearing that the estimated 22,000 protesters would not keep 1.5 metres apart from one another or comply with face mask requirements.
The ban, however, sparked outrage from organisers and their supporters who flooded social media with angry messages vowing to protest anyway. Some even called for violence.
Berlin’s administrative court sided with the demonstrators one the eve of the event. It said there was no indication that organisers would deliberately ignore social distancing rules and endanger public health.
A crowd including families with children gathered on Saturday morning around Brandenburg Gate, the starting point of the demonstration.
“I’m not an extreme rightwing sympathiser. I’m here to defend our fundamental freedoms,” said Stefan, a 43-year-old Berliner resident wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “thinking helps”.
“We’re here to say we have to be careful. Coronavirus crisis or not, we must defend our freedoms,” said Christina Holz, a 22-year-old student.
Around 3,000 police officers, including 1,000 federal police, would be deployed for the demonstration, alongside specialist equipment including water cannon, Slowik said.
The rally comes as coronavirus cases continue to rise in Germany. Daily new infection numbers have reached their highest level since April.
Angel Merkel said at a press conference on Friday that confronting the virus would become more challenging in the autumn and winter months.
The chancellor and the leaders of Germany’s 16 federal states introduced tougher restrictions on Thursday, including a minimum 50 euro (£45) fine for people caught not wearing face masks where one is compulsory.
“We will have to live with this virus for a long time to come. It is still serious. Please continue to take it seriously,” Merkel said.
The court decision to allow the protest shines a light on the battle lines being drawn up between those who are content to follow government protection measures and those who believe that authorities should not be able to dictate how people live.
A similar “anti-corona” march in Berlin at the beginning of August drew 20,000 protesters, a mixture of the hard left and right, anti-vaccination campaigners, conspiracy theorists and self-described “free thinkers”.
Police broke up the protest early after participants repeatedly flouted Covid-19 safety regulations.
The far-right welcomed Friday’s court ruling allowing the latest rally to go ahead. Leif-Erik Holm, an MP for the anti-migrant AfD party, called it “a victory for freedom”.
Several groups intend to stage counter-demonstrations to the main protest.
Anne Helm and MP from the leftwing party Die Linke, said: “There must be no tolerance towards racists, antisemites, rightwing extremists and Nazis. That is why I call on all Berliners to take part in the counter-events.”
Source: The Guardian