BERLIN (AP) – German police fired water cannons Wednesday at demonstrators protesting coronavirus restrictions in Berlin’s government district, after crowds ignored calls to wear masks and keep their distance from one another in line with pandemic regulations.
As the cannons soaked protesters outside the landmark Brandenburg Gate, police in riot gear moved through the crowd carrying away some participants. Some demonstrators threw fireworks and flares in response as police helicopters hovered overhead.
The protests came as German lawmakers debated on a bill providing legal underpinning for the government to issue social distancing rules, require masks in public and close stores and other venues to slow the spread of the virus. While such measures are supported by most people in Germany, a vocal minority has staged regular rallies around the country arguing that the restrictions are unconstitutional.
The measures are expected to pass both the lower and then upper house of parliament and be quickly signed by Germany´s president.
The health minister, Jens Spahn, defended the measures, telling lawmakers that authorities “struggle every day in trying to strike the balance” between restrictions and safeguarding democratic freedoms.
But he insisted that Germany had found the right path, noting that it has fared much better than many of its European neighbors.
“Where would you rather be than in Germany,” he told lawmakers from the far-right Alternative for Germany party who criticized the lockdown measures.
Overall, the country has seen 833,000 coronavirus cases and more than 13,000 virus-confirmed deaths in the pandemic, a death toll one-fourth that of Britain´s.
Spahn also praised the efforts of German pharmaceutical company BioNTech, which together with Pfizer is leading the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, and denied that there would be compulsory inoculation.
German authorities said Tuesday that they had banned a series of protests directly outside the parliament building due to security concerns, and fencing was put up around a wide area, including the Bundestag and nearby parliamentary offices, the federal chancellery and the presidential residence and offices.
Outside the metal cordons, protesters gathered early Wednesday by the Brandenburg Gate, and on streets and bridges. The demonstrators came from all walks of life, ranging from the far-left to the far-right, while also including families, students and others.
“We want our lives back,” read one sign carried by protesters. Another said “Put banks under surveillance, not citizens.” One demonstrator held a flag with a picture of outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump and an image invoking the right-wing conspiracy theory “QAnon,” while another had a placard showing top German virologist Christian Drosten in prison garb with the word “guilty.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas reacted sharply to the accusation from some protesters that the measures were akin to the 1933 “Enabling Act,” which allowed the Nazis to enact laws without parliamentary approval.
“Everyone, naturally, has the right to criticize the measures, our democracy thrives through the exchange of different opinions,” he wrote on Twitter. “But whoever relativizes or trivializes the Holocaust has learned nothing from our history.”
A demonstration earlier this month in the eastern city of Leipzig ended in chaos when thousands of protesters defied police orders to wear masks and, later, to disperse. Some participants attacked police officers and journalists.
Local authorities were criticized for acting too slowly and not forcefully enough to break up the crowd in Leipzig, allowing the situation to get out of control.
Berlin police said they had given out multiple citations already Wednesday for violating mask-wearing regulations, but that their appeals for people to wear protective gear and to keep their distance from one another were largely being ignored. Police said the order had now been given to detain people not following the regulations.
“If that does not help, the only course that remains is to disperse the gathering,” police said on Twitter.