MELBOURNE: Anti-lockdown protesters chant slogans at Melbourne's Queen Victoria Market during a rally yesterday, amid the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. - AFP

MELBOURNE: Authorities in Melbourne arrested more than 70 people for flouting stay-at-home orders to protest against lockdown restrictions yesterday, with some demonstrators clashing with riot police at a market in the city. About 250 people attended the illegal protest-the second in as many days in the city-promoted by coronavirus conspiracy groups on social media.

The demonstrators ignored official warnings and public health orders to gather at the central Queen Victoria market, calling for an end to a weeks-long lockdown of Australia's second-biggest city. They were met by a heavy police presence, with scuffles breaking out as the riot squad swept through market's fruit and vegetable aisles.

Police arrested 74 people and fined 176, saying in a statement that "many protestors were aggressive and threatened violence towards officers". One man believed to be a "primary agitator" is facing charges of incitement while another was charged with assaulting police, according to the statement. Last weekend, "Freedom Day" events were held across Australia to protest what some labeled the government's "overblown" response to the pandemic, which has killed more than 900,000 people worldwide.

The latest rallies come ahead of the gradual easing of virus restrictions in Melbourne, with daily outdoor exercise increased to two hours and small "social bubbles" allowed for people living alone from today. Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews, who has previously branded the protestors "selfish", said yesterday the state could not afford to reopen too quickly. "No-one is enjoying the reality we face, but none of us have the option of ignoring the reality that we face," he said.

"We cannot open up now and stay open. It would not be safe, it would not be smart." An overnight curfew, restrictions on visitors to homes and a limit on travelling more than five kilometers (about three miles) are set to remain in place across Melbourne until October 26. Despite Victoria's second wave, Australia has been relatively successful in containing the virus, allowing other regions to roll back restrictions. The nation has recorded more than 26,600 cases and 810 deaths in a population of 25 million, the vast majority in Melbourne and its surrounds.- AFP