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COVID-19 exemption granted to SA anti-racism protesters


Police Commissioner Grant Stevens has granted an exemption from COVID-19 restrictions to anti-racism protesters who will gather in Adelaide’s CBD tomorrow.

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Stevens, who is also the state coordinator under emergency management legislation, said he had taken the advice of the chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier and he believed the risk of community transmission was low.

But it came as Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged people around the country not to join the protests – following demonstrations across the US and UK in the wake of the death of George Floyd at police hands – warning it would risk increasing the spread of coronavirus.

The SAPOL Commissioner’s decision also put SA at odds with other states, after New South Wales fell into line with Victoria in urging protesters not to attend.

But Stevens today said he hoped to see the Adelaide protest conducted safely, with SA Police “working with” attendees to help them understand their social distancing obligations.

The protest was a “unique event” that fell outside the normal principles being applied to deal with the pandemic and was “one that can be done so safely”.

“Our endeavour is to work with the gathering and ensure it is a safe and successful event in the context of what we’re dealing with,” he said.

In a statement explaining his “blanket exemption”, SAPOL noted “this is a unique situation requiring the Commissioner to balance public health considerations with people’s ability to peacefully protest”.

“Taking all of the health advice into consideration; and the civil liberties of people who wish to peacefully protest, the State Coordinator has issued such an exemption for this one off unique situation,” it said.

The exemption permits “a gathering of more than 80 people in a public place for this one off occasion” but “strongly emphasises” they should “still maintain safe physical distancing and have an overt respect for any people who might be near to them with respect to preventing any spread of the COVID-19 virus”.

Anyone who is unwell shouldn’t attend the protest, and those who do attend need to maintain appropriate physical distance, police said.

“South Australia Police [have] been attempting to develop dialogue with the protesters but this has not yet been formerly established,” SAPOL said.

“We welcome organisers to establish contact with SAPOL members so that we can provide advice and work together on this day… there will be a highly visible police presence to ensure that the safety and wellbeing of protesters, and any other person who might come into contact with those lawfully protesting at Victoria Square, is of the highest priority.”

Police conceded “this is an unusual step but one which felt warranted given the circumstances”.

“SAPOL members will monitor the behaviour of all of those in attendance or in the vicinity and will not tolerate any violent or unlawful behaviour [which] will be treated with swift response and action,” SAPOL said.

Stevens argued the demonstration was an opportunity for South Australians to show that they can be heard on international issues in a way that is respectful.

He rejected comparisons with Anzac Day, when crowds were prevented from attending services, due to the fact that, in April, concerns about the potential spread of the virus were much greater than they are today.

However, Prime Minister Scott Morrison invoked the spirit of the Anzacs to urge Australians not to attend Black Lives Matters rallies over fears of spreading coronavirus.

The prime minister had a simple message for people planning to attend the protests: don’t go.

He’s concerned that by gathering in huge crowds, the nation will undo all the work done to curb coronavirus.

“Australians have worked incredibly hard in recent months and have undergone great sacrifices to protect the health of the most vulnerable and that does include our indigenous communities,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

He noted some Australians hadn’t been able to attend funerals for loved ones and others commemorated Anzac Day by standing on their driveways rather than attending ceremonies.

“We found a way to celebrate those who gave us our liberty. Let’s not misuse that liberty, let’s respect it, let’s respect other Australians,” he said.

“All Australians owe all those other Australians a great duty of responsibility, and I say to them: ‘Don’t go’.”

Huge crowds gathered in Perth and Sydney this week to show solidarity with the movement and African American George Floyd who died at the hands of US police.

The Australian protests are also a show of support to the Aboriginal community to highlight high levels of indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody.

Thousands are expected at protests in Canberra today as well as in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart on Saturday.

The Adelaide protest is planned to start at Victoria Square at midday.

The NSW state government had previously endorsed the protests, with premier Gladys Berejiklian urging participants to maintain social distancing.

But she had an about-face after a chorus of criticism from federal and state frontbenchers, while NSW police have challenged the event in the Supreme Court, seeking a limit on how many people can attend.

Berejiklian told reporters today: “All of us have given up so much and worked so hard to make sure we get on top of the virus.”

She said the protest initially proposed by the Black Lives Matter organisers was far smaller than that which was likely to occur, and that organisers could not guarantee social distancing protocols would be followed.

“If people had made the decision to express their views strongly in a COVID-19 safe way, which is the comments we made yesterday and the comments the day before, that would have been acceptable within the health orders but that is not the case,” Berejiklian said.

Victorian health authorities similarly urged people not to attend the rallies out of concern it could spark a second wave of virus cases.

However, organisers are doing what they can to help minimise health risks and are working with health services to distribute masks and hand sanitiser before and during the event.

They have also encouraged protesters to self quarantine for a few weeks afterwards.

“The risk is great, I don’t deny that. I am an at-risk person,” Indigenous academic Marcia Langton told ABC Radio.

“I do appeal to everybody to wear masks and social distance at the protest. But at the same time, every time an Aboriginal person goes out on the street we are at risk.”

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is worried about people breaking social distancing rules.

“People need to express their peaceful thoughts, their deeply held thoughts and concerns, online,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese says people need to be cautious.

“I understand people’s desire to protest and to make their voice heard. But we are still in a pandemic and we need to be extremely cautious about the way that we behave and to keep those social distancing rules in operation,” he told 2SM radio.

Senior medical officials are expected to provide health advice on the protests later on Friday.

There were 10 new cases of COVID-19 recorded on Thursday – eight in Victoria and two in NSW.

There were 474 active cases including 23 people in hospital.

On Friday morning, Victorian authorities reported three further cases – two in hotel quarantine and the third a primary school student.

– with AAP

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