Marseille, France CNN  — 

At first, the front line of Europe’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic was fought in hospitals by overstretched health care workers. Now as European countries seek to avoid the long-dreaded second wave, that line has shifted to the streets and is being manned by police forces.

In the last week, several European countries have seen record infection rates. Not since the spring have countries like France, Germany, Italy and Spain seen such a surge in the number of new cases. Countries like Greece and Croatia, largely spared by the first wave, have seen fast rises in August as tourists, taking advantage of the reopening of Europe’s internal borders in June, have headed to the beach for their summer holidays.

With authorities determined to avoid a second wave of lockdowns, legislation has been introduced to try and stop the spread of the virus. Nightclubs have been closed in Italy and in Greece, curfews introduced in Spain, Italy and Greece and facemasks made mandatory in an ever-growing number of public, outdoor spaces, in most EU countries: a gradual tightening of regulations that will now have to be enforced. The fight against Covid-19 has become, in these last couple of weeks in Europe, a matter of law and order.

Until recently many of the regulations applied to indoor businesses and were enforced by owners, or to public transport, where they were enforced by the conductors and drivers themselves. Across Europe there were reports of difficulties in the enforcement of the mask rules, from passengers who refused to wear them being made to disembark from “vaporettos,” the small boats that ferry tourists around the waterways of Venice, to the tragic killing in France of a bus conductor in July, who died after being attacked by passengers who’d been asked to put on their masks.

Now with the obligations on mask-wearing extending to the outdoors and with their enforcements shifting to the police, there is a sense of relief from many of those who had previously been in charge. “We were on the front line”, says Damien Cospanza, a bus conductor in Marseille in the south of France where mask-wearing was made mandatory in the entire city on Tuesday.

“Sadly people need to be scared. They need be fined for them to understand that it is mandatory, especially in a city like Marseille. People won’t listen much to a conductor but they will listen to the police.”

But if the burden has shifted from conductors and shopkeepers to the police, there is now a question of overstretch over the long-term, as regulations tighten and the number of cases continues to grow.

Police are now enforcing the wearing of masks in cities such as Marseille to slow rising Covid infections.
People wearing face masks stroll in the old harbour of Marseille on Wednesday.

Police stretched on many fronts

On Thursday, the French Prime Minister announced that masks, already mandatory in some parts of Paris, would be made obligatory throughout the city. “It isn’t enough to create new laws, they also have to be respected,” Jean Castex pointed out. Since August 17, he said, 30,000 police checks had been carried out on indoor businesses with 1,900 fines levied and 53 establishments closed.

In Marseille, a tourist hot-spot where the obligation to wear a mask outdoors was extended on Tuesday to the entire city, a special team of national policemen has been sent to help local forces enforce the new rules.

As CNN followed the officers around Marseille’s old port last week, the unit’s commander, Jean-Marc Cortes, explained that his job was more about helping people to understand the new rules, than actually imposing the 135-euro ($159) fine for non-compliance. “If there weren’t police on the street enforcing the rule,” he said, “people would wear it less. When they see us, it reminds them that it’s mandatory and often that’s enough.”

But already, two weeks after masks were first made mandatory outdoors in France, 700 fines are being issued a day, by an already overstretched police force that has had to deal these last few years with both terrorism and massive protests. “We’ve had the yellow vests and now it’s Covid,” says Eric Moulin, the regional secretary of the UNSA police union, “and while we are busy with those missions we cannot also fight other crimes like delinquency … and that is our primary role, fighting general delinquency. And that is going to take more resources.”

In June police forces in France staged several demonstrations, calling for more support from the government and more resources, as protests partly inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement raised fresh concerns about the methods used in several recent French cases of alleged police brutality.

In 2018 as well, there were protests by police calling for more resources, some of them held illegally. Moulin says it is a good measure of the frustration of rank-and-file police officers, now worsened by their extra responsibilities. At the very start of France’s lockdown in March, it was only the threat of a police strike that prompted authorities to issue the protective equipment that officers had been calling for.

Catalonian police officers ask a woman to wear a face mask at Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain, on July 9, 2020.

Part of the problem is how confusing the new rules can be. With only some neighborhoods affected by the new rules and little to remind tourists of their limits, it can be difficult to know when you are leaving an area where you don’t have to wear a mask and entering one where you do. Take Marseille’s 7th district, where masks have been mandatory since August 10. At its seaside, on the promenade, masks were being checked by police, but immediately beneath them, on the crowded Les Catalans beach, there were few masks to be seen. The officers explained that although the obligation to wear the masks did technically apply to the beach as well, it would simply be too difficult to enforce given the vast crowds of sunbathers.

There are also variations in the levels of enforcement of the new rules, both within EU countries and between them. “There are no [nation-wide] orders concerning masks, it’s on a case-by-case basis, depending on the orders of local prefects,” said Christophe Crépin, speaking for France’s “policiers en colère,” or “angry policemen” association.

“Sometimes you get repression, sometimes prevention, sometimes education. We don’t do police checks on ‘good people’ from ‘good families’ in nice suburbs but we do them on the streets of Marseille,” Crépin added.

Few extra resources

Despite the open borders of Europe, there are also variations in the enforcement of the bloc’s various rules. Take Italy, the original epicenter of the European outbreak, which has so far had more than twice as many cases as Belgium. And yet 100 fines over mask-wearing are issued every day in Brussels alone, according to Belgian police; the figure in the whole of Italy is on average around 40, according to the Italian interior ministry.

In Spain, which has the highest infection rates in Western Europe at the moment, fresh regulations were announced by the Prime Minister this week, including the closure of discos and a partial ban on smoking outdoors. Pedro Sanchez also announced that 2,000 military personnel would be deployed to help with contact-tracing. Sanchez also gave regions the power to declare local states of emergency.

In Greece, a country largely spared by Europe’s first wave, police checks have also intensified. Last Friday, 59,882 checks were carried out with 560 violations of either face masks or social distancing recorded, according to local press reports. There were also several fines imposed on businesses that failed to respect a midnight curfew. Overall in August, 7,414 violations have been recorded nationwide for various offenses ranging from the failure to wear a face mask in public places, to operating businesses beyond designated curfews.

In most countries, little has been announced in terms of additional resources or changed policing strategies. On the whole, enforcement of the new regulations appears to fall on the shoulders of ordinary police officers. The UK Home Office says 6,000 extra police will be recruited by March 2021. But these were part of an earlier drive to increase numbers; they are not linked to the enforcement of Covid regulations. A spokesperson told CNN the police’s job was to enforce the law, whether related to coronavirus or not.

The danger of a growing pushback from Europeans as regulations tighten could also lead to a further strain on police resources. In Germany, large protests were held across the country on August 1, with some of the 20,000 protesters gathered in Berlin, shouting “we’re the second wave” and “resistance.” Fresh protests that were planned for Saturday have been banned, with authorities warning that the police will intervene should anyone take to the streets. A spokesman for the German police told CNN that around 3,000 police officers would be deployed on Saturday to ensure that health standards were adhered to.

Police enforce the wearing of mandatory face masks at the train station in Essen, Germany on Monday, August 24.

During the first wave of the European coronavirus outbreak, with clear messaging from authorities and health systems on the verge of collapse, there was little pushback to the measures taken to try and stop its spread.

Now, with health systems no longer threatened and lower death rates, the question of how far to regulate daily life becomes one of managing risk. And for authorities that could prove more political and far more difficult with an increasingly reluctant public facing an ever-growing burden of regulations.

For now, it’s simply too soon to know whether the new rules will help authorities turn around the deteriorating Covid figures. But until they do, authorities across Europe will continue to search for the right balance between protecting public health and further infringing people’s civil liberties, with the police walking the fine line between the two.

CNN’s Nadine Schmidt in Berlin contributed to this report.