New protests loom as Europeans tire of virus restrictions

(Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)

MILAN — Protesters set trash bins afire and police responded with hydrant sprays in downtown Rome Tuesday night, part of a day of public outpouring of anger against virus-fighting measures like evening shutdowns for restaurants and bars and the closures of gyms and theaters — a sign of growing discontent across Europe with renewed coronavirus restrictions.

Pedestrians and motorists returning home from work in Rome were taken by surprise when protesters, some of them hooded and members of an extreme-right political group, set afire to trash bins in Piazza del Popolo, overturned parked motor scooters and mopeds and hurled smoke bombs, state TV reported. Police vans unleashed torrents of water to disperse them.

It was a fifth straight night of violent protest in Italy, following recent local overnight curfews in metropolises including Naples and Rome.

After protests Monday night turned violent in the financial capital of Milan, police arrested 28 people. And in Italy’s industrial northern city of Turin, at least 11 were arrested, including two who smashed the window of a Gucci boutique and stripped a mannequin of its lemon yellow trousers.

All of Europe is grappling with how to halt a fall resurgence of the virus before its hospitals become overwhelmed again.

Nightly curfews have been implemented in French cities. Schools must close at 6 p.m. Schools have been closed in Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic. German officials have ordered de-facto lockdowns in some areas near the Austrian border and new mask-wearing requirements are popping up weekly across the continent, including a nationwide requirement in Russia.

“We would all like to live like before, but there are moments where you have to make tough decisions,” French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said Tuesday as the government held emergency meetings on the pandemic.

Yet in this new round of restrictions, governments are finding a less compliant public, even as the continent has seen over 250,000 confirmed deaths in the pandemic and last week recorded 46% of the world’s new infections, according to the World Health Organization.

Over the weekend, police used pepper spray against protesters angry over new virus restrictions in Poland. Spanish doctors staged their first national walkout in 25 years on Tuesday to protest poor working conditions.

In Britain, anger and frustration at the government’s uneven handling of the pandemic has erupted into a political crisis over the issue of hungry children.

Scrambling to ease some of the financial pain caused by the latest restrictions on businesses, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte’s Cabinet approved 5 billion euros ($5.8 billion) in economic relief.

The measures included extending unemployment benefits for unionized workers for up to six weeks, through January, financial aid for restaurants, cafes, hotels, gyms and ice cream parlors, taxi drivers and other sectors already hit hard by the lockdown earlier this year, and now reeling under the new restrictions with some businesses in danger of folding.

Also allocated were one-time 1,000 euro payments to free-lancers in the entertainment industry, pummeled by the cinema and theater closure, which lasts at least a month.

Conte said the alternative was another national lockdown to avoid overwhelming the national health service. Italy registered more than 22,000 infections since the previous day.

Aiming to avoid lockdown, “we tried to assemble a series of measures with surgical precision with the awareness they would have had a negative impact,” Conte said.

On Tuesday, a dozen restaurant owners protested in front of Milan’s city hall while as many stadium concession stand owners waved banners at the Lombardy regional headquarters.

“No one has thought of us,” said Giacomo Errico, the Lombardy president of FIVA Commercio representing 6,000 concession stand owners in the northern region, among 40,000 nationwide, that have been out of work since February.

Such peaceful protests have been staged up and down the Italian peninsula, while more violent protests erupting at night, increasingly culminating with vandalism, looting and clashes with police.

Italy’s national prosecutor for terrorism and organized crime, Federico Cafiero de Raho, on Tuesday said subversives had infiltrated peaceful protests in the country. He said they included proponents of the extreme right and anarchists on the extreme left.

Investigators have also looked into indications that organized crime groups in the Naples area provoked violence at a peaceful protest.

France has warned of possible new lockdowns, include extending existing curfews, fully keeping residents at home on weekends or all week and closing non-essential businesses. Since curfews were imposed a couple of weeks ago, French police have issued 14,000 fines, the interior minister said Tuesday. Doctors are seeing growing pressure on France’s emergency services and intensive care wards, where COVID patients now take up more than half of the beds.

In Spain, the Canary Islands was seeking to pass a law demanding that visitors arrive at the popular archipelago off northwest Africa with proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

Russia, which has world’s fourth highest tally of 1.5 million confirmed cases, is resisting a second lockdown. But with cases rising at over 15,000 a day, the health agency ordered all Russians to wear masks in crowded public spaces, including public transport, and in closed spaces like taxis and elevators.

Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief, said the European Union’s open borders might even need to be shut down again to “take the heat out of this phase of the pandemic.”

“There’s no question that the European region is an epicenter of disease right now,” he said.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said even more stringent measures should be applied to stop the virus.


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