MELBOURNE: Authorities in Melbourne arrested more than 70 people for flouting stay-at-home orders to protest against lockdown restrictions on Sunday, with some demonstrators clashing with riot police at a market in the city.
About 250 people attended the illegal protest — the second in as many days in the city — promoted by coronavirus conspiracy groups on social media.
The demonstrators ignored official warnings and public health orders to gather at the central Queen Victoria market, calling for an end to a weeks-long lockdown of Australia’s second-biggest city.
They were met by a heavy police presence, with scuffles breaking out as the riot squad swept through market’s fruit and vegetable aisles.
One man believed to be a “primary agitator” is facing charges of incitement while another was charged with assaulting police, according to the statement.
Last weekend, “Freedom Day” events were held across Australia to protest what some labelled the government’s “overblown” response to the pandemic, which has killed more than 900,000 people worldwide.
The latest rallies come ahead of the gradual easing of virus restrictions in Melbourne, with daily outdoor exercise increased to two hours and small “social bubbles” allowed for people living alone from Monday.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews, who has previously branded the protestors “selfish”, said the state could not afford to reopen too quickly.
“No-one is enjoying the reality we face, but none of us have the option of ignoring the reality that we face,” he said.
“We cannot open up now and stay open. It would not be safe, it would not be smart.” An overnight curfew, restrictions on visitors to homes and a limit on travelling more than five kilometres (about three miles) are set to remain in place across Melbourne until October 26.
Despite Victoria’s second wave, Australia has been relatively successful in containing the virus, allowing other regions to roll back restrictions.
The nation has recorded more than 26,600 cases and 810 deaths in a population of 25 million, the vast majority in Melbourne and its surrounds.“It was extremely disappointing to see people not just protesting but putting the lives of other Victorians at risk despite all the warnings,” the police said in an e-mailed statement.
The protests came after 14 people were arrested at small dispersed rallies on Saturday and as Victoria is set to ease its lockdown restrictions very slightly as of Monday, as the number of new daily coronavirus cases continued to fall in the country’s hotspot.
On Sunday, there were 41 new coronavirus cases reported and seven more deaths, showing a steady downward trend from a peak of more than 700 cases in a single day in early August.
Victoria accounts for about 75 percent of Australia’s more than 26,600 Covid-19 cases and more than 90pc of the country’s total 810 deaths. The state capital, Melbourne, has been under strict lockdown for six weeks.