Workers of the world scaled back their traditional May Day demos Friday with coronavirus lockdowns forcing many to rally online while a determined few hit the streets in face masks.

But from Havana to Helsinki and beyond, most gatherings on this unusual Labor Day were small and without incident.

Cuba's celebrations were muted after the ruling Communist Party urged people to celebrate at home.

Around a million workers and their families normally take part in the annual May Day march, but on Friday, the iconic image of Ernesto Che Guevara gazed down on an eerily silent Revolution Square in Havana.

Workers marked May Day in Athens with masks, gloves and "strict" adherence to spacing regulations Workers marked May Day in Athens with masks, gloves and "strict" adherence to spacing regulations Photo: AFPTV / Will VASSILOPOULOS

"We always celebrate in Cuba on May 1, this time we have to do it like this, but it is for the good of all," says Xiomara Castellanos, a 77-year-old retiree who greeted the day by singing the national anthem from her window.

Elsewhere in Latin America, labor unions in Honduras called for an end to the country's "monstrous corruption" and workers carrying a banner reading "No Quarantine with Hunger" marched on government buildings in Buenos Aires.

With strict social distancing rules in most countries to halt the spread of the virus, many union leaders opted to delay gatherings or move events online, faced with the COVID-19 outbreak that has killed more than 233,000 people worldwide.

Demonstraters in Athens marked May Day while wearing protective masks and respecting social distancing Demonstraters in Athens marked May Day while wearing protective masks and respecting social distancing Photo: AFP / Aris MESSINIS

May Day carried extra significance this year after the epidemic sent the global economy into a tailspin, put unprecedented numbers of people out of work, and cast some of the world's lower paid workers -- nurses, garbage collectors, shop tellers and delivery drivers -- in the role of modern-day heroes.

"It is thanks to the labor we celebrate on this day that the nation perseveres," said President Emmanuel Macron of France, where workers celebrated the popular holiday by banging pots, singing, displaying banners from their balconies and taking part in online demonstrations.

Two dozen protesters were arrested in Istanbul after trying to march toward Taksim Square in defiance of the lockdown Two dozen protesters were arrested in Istanbul after trying to march toward Taksim Square in defiance of the lockdown Photo: AFP / Bulent Kilic

In Turkey, some two dozen mask-wearing protesters including a senior union leader were arrested for taking part in a small march in Istanbul in violation of lockdown measures, an AFP photographer witnessed.

Hundreds of Greek workers rallied outside parliament, wearing red scarves over their faces or masks bearing messages of solidarity with health workers.

Members of Polo Obrero social organization march towards Plaza de Mayo square holding banners during a May Day demonstration in Buenos Aires, Argentina Members of Polo Obrero social organization march towards Plaza de Mayo square holding banners during a May Day demonstration in Buenos Aires, Argentina Photo: AFP / JUAN MABROMATA

"Covered mouths still have a voice," read some.

In the Philippines, police detained at least three people as small groups of protesters banged on empty pots and held up placards demanding government aid and safe working conditions, in defiance of a ban on public gatherings.

Some 23 million people -- nearly a quarter of the population -- faced hunger due to "no work, no pay" provisions in their employment contracts, Jerome Adonis of the May First Movement labor movement told AFP.

Workers wear face masks during a May Day protest in Guatemala City Workers wear face masks during a May Day protest in Guatemala City Photo: AFP / Johan ORDONEZ

A riot broke out in Indonesia's North Maluku province when employees of a nickel processing plant were barred from entering the compound to stage a protest demanding better working conditions, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.

The company's canteen building was set on fire as hundreds of workers clashed with security guards.

In Finland, traditional communal picnics were replaced by restaurants offering livestreams of wine tastings or cocktail-making lessons, and serving up traditional May Day food for home delivery.

"We've had to get creative and try and find new ways that we can still interact and create togetherness," Helsinki restaurateur Filippo Phoumsavanh told AFP.

Italians too greeted May Day in unusual fashion. A traditional concert on Rome's San Giovanni Square was replaced by a virtual performance broadcast live on public television for four hours until midnight.

Artists, including big names such as Gianna Nannini, Zucchero, Sting and Patti Smith, performed from locations around the country.

In Hong Kong, meanwhile, riot police deployed with rubber bullets and tear gas after democracy activists threatened to defy a ban on gatherings to hold pro-democracy protests.

The streets remained largely empty, but hundreds did gather in a shopping mall in the town of Shatin, chanting slogans and waving protest flags.

Riot police used pepper spray to disperse them.

Police also deployed in large numbers in Germany to enforce a prohibition on gatherings of more than 20 people.

Zaragoza in northern Spain was the scene of an unusual rally -- May Day demonstrators formed up in a long line of cars, each with a single occupant sporting gloves and a mask.

In Vienna, a few hundred people standing one meter (a little over three feet) apart gathered at the chancellery to demand an end to the coronavirus lockdown, bearing signs reading: "We don't want dictatorship."

Three far-right activists were arrested on a bridge near the Kremlin in Moscow where they tried to mount a protest, according to the Left Front movement, critical of President Vladimir Putin.

Several hundred people gathered on Martyrs' Square in Beirut, Lebanon, where economic hardship has fueled public anger at the government.

"I came because I am hungry, I am tired of this life," said Mohamed Ali, 25, who lost his job and said he has not a cent to his name.