SYDNEY - Restaurants, cafes and bars in New South Wales were reopening on Friday after a two-month shutdown under coronavirus lockdown measures, boosting the federal government’s bid to get people back in work and the economy back on track.
The easing of quarantine measures in NSW comes just a day after the national statistics office reported unprecedented record high job losses and Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned that worse was still to come.
In Sydney, locals braved a cold, wet morning to catch up with friends and family over a coffee.
“It is such a treat,” said Jess Best, who met up with a friend in a cafe in the city’s eastern suburbs. “To be able to sit down with other people around and chat to my friend. I can have a normal morning, not hiding away in my home.”
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian cautioned people to remain vigilant and maintain social distancing as restaurants, pubs and other businesses reopened for dine-in customers under the proviso they limit patrons to 10 at any one time.
“Easing restrictions has failed in so many places around the world and I don’t want that to happen in NSW, I want people to have personal responsibility for the way we respond,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney on Friday.
NSW officials reported eight new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, the highest daily tally in just over a week. The national daily increase has slowed to an average of less than 20 a day.
Officials have credited lockdown measures adopted in March, including closing the country’s borders and ordering people to stay home unless on essential business, with constraining the spread of the virus. Australia has recorded about 7,000 COVID-19 cases, including 98 deaths, significantly below the levels reported in North America and Europe.
Morrison has outlined a three-stage plan to remove almost all lockdown measures by July in a bid to revive a national economy that had experienced more than two decades of uninterrupted growth before the pandemic. Most economists are now forecasting a recession.
Under Australia’s federal system, the implementation of the three-stage plan is the responsibility of individual states and territories. This has meant that different parts of the country are following different timetables.
In NSW, where schools are also slowly reopening, private households will be able to have five guests and public gatherings are limited to 10 people.
Public swimming pools also reopened, with a maximum of 20 people allowed in the water.
“It’s amazing to be able to swim again,” said Jenny Finikiotis as she emerged from at the Bronte Swimming Club’s ocean pool. “The water is so warm, it’s crystal clear and the best it has been all summer, probably because there has been no one here swimming in it.”
In the Northern Territory, where case numbers have been low and there have been no deaths, pubs are opening with no restrictions on patron numbers and there are no limits on public gatherings or house visits.
Victoria, Australia’s second most populous state which on Friday reported 21 new cases, is currently retaining most of its lockdown measures.
Morrison described Thursday’s labour market data, which showed almost 600,000 people lost their jobs in April, as “heartbreaking” and told Australians to brace for more bad news.
He will meet with the emergency national cabinet formed to deal with the crisis later on Friday. The group, which includes state and territory leaders, will hear briefings from the Reserve Bank of Australia governor and other financial leaders.
Reporting by Colin Packham