WELLINGTON – The number of cars and trucks blocking the streets outside New Zealand's Parliament was thinning Friday, although more protesters were expected to arrive for the weekend, including some by boat.
For more than two weeks, protesters against coronavirus vaccine mandates have been camping outside Parliament, their numbers dropping during the weekdays and then swelling to the thousands over the weekends.
The protest action comes as coronavirus case numbers surge in New Zealand. Health authorities on Friday reported a record 12,000 new cases — almost double the previous record set Thursday and up from about 2,000 per day a week ago.
The Ministry of Health this week listed the protest site as a location of interest in the outbreak.
Those who oppose vaccine mandates claimed a victory on Friday after a judge ruled in favor of a group of police and military workers who argued that a mandate affecting them unduly infringed their rights. The ruling will allow about 280 unvaccinated workers to keep their jobs for now.
Police have been reluctant to use force to break up the protest, but over the past week have reduced vehicle numbers by placing concrete barriers around the protest and allowing cars to leave but not return. That has reduced the number of vehicles from about 800 to 300.
Authorities had a blunt message for those planning to join the protest.
“Police would like to reiterate the warning to those thinking of travelling to Wellington to participate in the unlawful protest this weekend – don’t,” they said in a statement. Police also urged protesters to take home an estimated 30 children from the protest site, saying it wasn't safe.
But maritime authorities confirmed Friday that some private boats were already heading toward the capital.
“We are aware vessels left Picton this morning to cross the Cook Strait to Wellington,” said Nigel Clifford, a deputy director at Maritime New Zealand. “It isn’t yet known how many vessels are currently en route or plan to make the trip."
Many protesters had been stuck on the South Island because they didn’t want to travel on ferries, which require passengers to show a vaccine pass or negative test.
The convoy protest was inspired by similar protests in Canada and has sparked other protests around New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's security detail has been increased after protesters heckled her at events, including as she was leaving a school visit in Christchurch Thursday.
Lawmakers across all parties have refused to meet with the protesters, although former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, who is no longer a lawmaker, paid a visit to the protest site.
Brian Roper, an associate professor of politics at the University of Otago, said he thinks the protest is having a growing political impact.
He said he believes the protest represents a very small minority of people who have been captured by far-right media platforms. Other protesters include those living alternative lifestyles, he said, but they aren't regular working-class folk as sometimes portrayed.
Earlier this week, one protester drove a car toward a police line, narrowly avoiding officers. And police said some of the protesters had thrown human feces at them. In all, police have arrested 132 protesters and laid various charges against some of them.
Protesters have been well organized, setting up tents on the lawns outside Parliament and trucking in portable toilets, crates of donated food, and bales of straw to lay down when the grass turned to mud.
They even dug a vegetable garden, set up a daycare tent, and assembled makeshift showers as they signaled their intent to stay for a long time.
At one point, Parliament Speaker Trevor Mallard turned on the sprinklers and blasted Barry Manilow tunes in a failed effort to make them leave.
Ardern has said she plans to begin easing virus mandates and restrictions once the peak of the current outbreak has passed.
About 77% of New Zealand's population is vaccinated.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, New Zealand has reported just 61 virus deaths — including five on Friday — among its population of 5 million, after it imposed strict border controls and lockdowns to eliminate earlier outbreaks.