Stevens announced the stance after 1pm Tuesday, following a morning meeting of SA’s Transition Committee which approved 2000 spectators being allowed to attend this weekend’s Showdown at Adelaide Oval, but also firmly ruled out more exemptions for rallies said to be planned for the city as early as this weekend.
Stevens says he granted COVID-19 exemptions for Saturday’s anti-racism rally attended by thousands of protesters, despite he and the state’s Chief Public Health Officer having concerns about the health risks.
Stevens, who is also the state coordinator under emergency management legislation, said the event would have gone ahead even if ruled illegal, putting police officers in the difficult position of having to enforce social distancing laws – a position backed by Premier Steven Marshall.
The approval was also a recognition of the “horrific” context of the rally, one of many held around the globe in response to the death of African-American George Floyd after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes
However, he has ruled out any more exemptions and says police will enforce SA’s social distancing laws at any future rallies, saying to do otherwise would “make a mockery” of restrictions.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison appealed for Australians not to attend weekend anti-racism rallies planned for various cities, and other State Governments also opposed the events, but Stevens on Friday granted an exemption, with police estimating 7000 people attending the Victoria Square event.
“We weren’t going to be able to stop this rally, so … rather than try and stop it or ignore significant breaches of directions we approved it so we had some control and some ability to influence the way it was conducted, and I’m really pleased it was a safe and well run event,” Stevens told FIVEaa on Tuesday morning.
“I spoke at length with (Dr Nicola Spurrier) about this protest and, to be quite frank, both her and I were of the view that it was preferable that it didn’t occur but that was also just not a reality, this rally was going to happen.
“Her advice was that we encourage social distancing and that we don’t hand out face masks – because that was one of the considerations we had, to offer free face masks to people attending – but her advice was that face masks create a false sense of security and unless they’re properly used don’t actually provide the protection people think they do provide.”
Stevens said that if the rally had gone ahead without being given official clearance, it would have been left up to individual police officers to enforce SA’s social distancing laws.
“If I hadn’t given an exemption, I’m putting the onus on those police officers who are on the front line, managing that protest, to make those individual decisions as to whether they’re going to issue expiation notices or arrest people for non-compliance and I don’t think that’s fair on them… I would rather take the responsibility for the decision that says I’m exempting this so that we can focus on a safely managed event where we encourage people to do the right thing, rather than having that difficult decision about going into a situation where we’re dealing with confrontation.
“That’s the reality. We have 7000 people on our estimates in Victoria Square and as much as we encourage social distancing I don’t know that it was necessarily the case a lot of the time and the reality also is that a lot of the participants were from a vulnerable community as far as coronavirus goes. I just don’t know what the options were.
“We could have taken the stance in other jurisdictions where they did not approve the protests, they had tens of thousands of people turning up and I still maintain that had I not made the decision I made I would have been leaving it to individual police officers to make that decision, and that’s simply not fair on them.”
Premier Steven Marshall said he backed the commissioner’s decision to exempt the rally, which police believed was “going to occur, whether it was legal or not”.
“There are a whole range of implications as soon as you make it illegal – how do you actually enforce that?” he told ABC Radio Adelaide.
“Now, he was very clear to me that he wanted to be able to work with the organisers; while it was an illegal rally that was impossible, what you would have had were scenes I think like what we’ve seen around other cities around the world, other cities around Australia.
“I don’t have any desire whatsoever for the police to be unnecessarily spraying tear gas on to the people of South Australia. It was a peaceful demonstration. It was an horrific incident in the US which I think led to the Black Lives Matter movement and the rallies around the world, and certainly here in Australia, and I think by and large it was a very peaceful rally … on Friday, and as I said over the weekend and again today, I back the Police Commissioner on this decision.”
Stevens said he now had to consider how to address future protests, with Black Lives Matter organisers saying they will march again this weekend, and others.
He said while there was community goodwill towards Saturday’s rally, future events would “make a mockery” of restrictions which continue to be applied to and enforced on businesses and sporting events.
“I’ll just go back to what I said before, we weren’t going to be able to stop this rally, so rather than try and stop it or ignore significant breaches of directions we approved it so we had some control and some ability to influence the way it was conducted… I’m really pleased it was a safe and well-run event, but that can’t happen every weekend otherwise the restrictions do become a mockery, but we can’t allow everybody to do everything at the same time otherwise, based on what we’re told from Health, is this creates so much movement within a community that the risk of a spread is far greater if we do get an outbreak in South Australia.”
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