Train station protests fizzle in Italy as COVID passes start

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Italian police officers perform checks at Milan’s Stazione Centrale train station, Italy, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. The Italian government vowed to crack down on demonstrators threatening to block train tracks throughout the country on Wednesday as a rule requiring COVID-19 tests or vaccines takes effect for long-distance domestic public transport. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)

ROME (AP) — Police outnumbered demonstrators at several of Italy’s main train stations as COVID-19 vaccination or tests became mandatory Wednesday for long-distance travel within the country. Threats by some of the rule’s opponents to block railroad tracks apparently fizzled.

On the eve of the requirement’s taking effect, Premier Mario Draghi’s government had vowed to crack down on demonstrators who had called for their ranks to occupy tracks at around 50 stations to protest the measure, which they say impinges on their freedom of movement.

In Rome’s heavily used Tiburtina station, only four protesters showed up, while in Milan, the nation’s business capital, demonstrators numbered about 20. In Naples, only a handful of protesters turned out.

Compared to the several hundred demonstrators who have turned out in dozens of protests around the country earlier this summer, Wednesday’s turnout was paltry. A few who did show up held banners with slogans denouncing “Health Dictatorship” and “No Green Pass.”

Travelers need a so-called Green Pass to board domestic flights and inter-regional trains and buses and some ferries. Local transit is exempt.

In a bid to rein in the transmission of infections, mainly driven by the delta variant, as Italians returned from summer vacations, the government announced weeks ago that starting on Sept. 1 passengers must certification they have had at least one vaccine dose more than 15 days prior, tested negative in the past 48 hours or recovered from COVID-19 in the previous six months.

Some ferries are exempt, such as those used daily by commuters between Sicily and and the southern tip of the mainland in Calabria.

Earlier this summer, Green Passes became mandatory for dining indoors at restaurants, accessing gyms or attending crowded events like concerts.

On the eve of the transportation rule taking effect, Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese pledged that there would be zero tolerance for law breakers on the tracks or any violence.

“No illegal acts will be permitted in protest initiatives at train stations,” said the minister, whose ministry deployed a heavy police presence on Wednesday.

Militants of an extreme-right group, New Force, as well as some members of extreme-left organizations, have participated in previous Green Pass protests.

Several recent anti-Green Pass rallies, including in Rome and Milan, turned violent. Last month, police rescued a state television journalist after a protester started yanking her by her hair, and a newspaper reporter was punched repeatedly in the face. Ministers, governors and doctors have received threats. An infectious disease specialist in Genoa reported around 70 online and phone threats to him and his family. On a recent night, he called police after being confronted by an angry man near his home who shouted that he should die.

So far, around 70% of Italy’s residents 12 years or older have been fully vaccinated. But experts have voiced concern that many people in the 50-69 age group haven’t received vaccines nor signed up for them.

Travelers on Wednesday had their Green Passes handy.

“It’s great, because it allows us to travel more safely,” Arianna Bini, a 48-year-old pharmaceutical company manager waiting for a train in Florence. “Since I travel a lot, I feel more at ease.”

On a high-speed train from Milan, in northern Lombardy, to Reggio Calabria, at the southern “toe” of the Italian peninsula, a conductor asked passengers to show their passes along with their tickets. U.S. tourists showed their U.S. vaccine cards and were also asked for their passports.

Riley Smith, a 26-year-old from New York who was traveling to Naples with a friend, said she knew what to expect. “New York just passed similar measures. I think it’s a good thing across the board.”

Other countries have adopted similar requirements.

Turkey’s Interior Ministry has ordered all domestic travelers over 18 to provide either proof of full vaccination, recovery from COVID-19 or a negative PCR test result. The requirement begins on Sept. 6.

Greece applies the same rules for domestic travel as for international travel. The country’s certificate requirements are similar to Italy’s for long-distance domestic travel.. Unlike Italy, Greece’s requirements haven’t sparked protests.

France’s instituted a “health pass” requirement for domestic transportation on Aug. 9. The French railway SNCF says that based on pre-boarding checks, 97% of travelers have produced a travel pass.

The requirement, along with mandatory vaccinations for health workers, prompted weeks of Saturday protests, including some violent ones, by far-right activists and others angry at the French government.

___

Karl Ritter in Florence, Andrew Wilks in Istanbul, Angela Charlton and Sylvie Corbet in Paris, and Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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