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 water shot from the cannons rained down on protesters outside the landmark Brandenburg Gate, police in riot gear moved through the crowd carrying away some participants. Some demonstrators threw fireworks, flares and other objects in response as police helicopters hovered overhead.
Officers avoided shooting the cannons directly at protesters because there were children in the crowd, and they worked slowly and methodically to disperse the crowd, Berlin police spokesman Thilo Cabiltz said. Some protesters popped open umbrellas and held their ground until they were eventually forced back.
More than 100 people were arrested, Cabiltz said, and many more temporarily detained. Nine police officers were injured. The protest crowd thinned significantly by late afternoon as many demonstrators marched back to the city’s main train station, chanting and blowing whistles.
One protester held a sign saying “Infection Protection LawDictatorship.” Another waved one reading “Truth, Freedom, Don’t Touch Our Constitution.”
The protests came as German lawmakers debated a bill that would provide legal underpinning for the government to issue physical distancing rules, require masks in public and to close stores and other venues to slow the spread of the virus.
The bill easily passed both the lower and upper houses of Germany’s parliament and was being fast-tracked to the county’s president for his signature later Wednesday.
While such virus-prevention measures are supported by most people in Germany, a vocal minority has staged regular rallies around the country, arguing that the restrictions are unconstitutional.
Health Minister Jens Spahn, defended the measures in parliament ahead of the vote, 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 neighbours.
“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 reported about 833,000 coronavirus cases and more than 13,000 virus-related deaths in the pandemic, a death toll one-fourth the size 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 against COVID-19. The health minister denied that vaccinations would be compulsory.
German authorities said Tuesday that they had banned a series of protests directly outside the parliament building due to security concerns. Fencing was put up around a wide area that included the Bundestag, nearby parliamentary offices, the federal chancellery and the presidential residence and offices.