Protests greet debut of Italy's workplace COVID pass rule

ROME (AP) — Protests erupted in Italy as one of the most stringent anti-coronavirus measures in Europe went into effect Friday, requiring all workers, from magistrates to maids, to show a health pass to get into their place of employment.

Police were out in force, schools planned to end classes early and embassies issued warnings of possible violence amid concerns that anti-vaccination demonstrations could turn violent, as they did in Rome last weekend.

Protests by port workers in Genoa and Trieste threatened to affect commercial activities, but early reports suggested the ports were operational. Protesters shouted “Liberta” (Freedom) in a largely peaceful demonstration in Florence.

The so-called “Green Pass” shows proof of vaccination, a recent negative test or of having recovered from COVID-19 in the past six months. Italy already required them to access all sorts of indoor environments, including restaurants, museums, theaters, and long-distance trains.

But the addition of the workplace requirement has sparked heated debate and opposition in a country that a coronavirus epicenter early in the pandemic and where vaccination rates are among the highest in Europe.

Implementation of the new requirement varies: Electronic scanners that can read cellphone QR codes were set up at bigger places of employment, such as the office of Italian Premier Mario Draghi and the headquarters of state railway company Trenitalia.

But at smaller places, from restaurants to tennis clubs, employers and managers had to download an app that can scan the codes. While it was unclear how strictly Italy would enforce the requirement, the fear of spot checks drove employers to comply, at least initially.

The aim of the requirement is to encourage even higher vaccination rates. In Italy, 80% of the population over age 12 has already been fully vaccinated. But for those people who can’t or won’t get their shots, the expanded pass requirement imposes a burden of getting tested every 48 hours just to be able to go to work.

Testing capacity proved to be Italy’s Achilles’ heel during the first wave of the pandemic, and the governor of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, has warned it won’t be able to keep up with the new demand. He has called for the government to let people secure green passes based on results from at-home test kits rather than having to go to a pharmacy for a rapid test.

“If the law says people have the right to work with a test every 48 hours, they have to guarantee this right,” Zaia said.

Not even the Vatican was spared opposition to the new requirement: Three Swiss Guards quit and another three were suspended after they refused to get vaccinated before the Vatican’s green pass requirement went into effect.