Restaurants, cafes and bars in some Australian states took their first cautious steps to reopening on Friday after being closed for nearly eight weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Under the new rules, drinkers and diners are being allowed to return to venues for a maximum of two hours, but only 10 people at a time, and business owners must ensure customers maintain social distancing.
Outdoor exercise clubs and team sports are back on too in groups of no more than 10, and the same number of people can congregate in churches and other places of worship.
Australia, which closed its external and internal borders, imposed an early shutdown of businesses and issued strict social distancing rules in March, has avoided the high numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths seen in some other countries.
With fewer than 20 new cases of coronavirus being recorded each day, Australian states and territories agreed a roadmap last week to lift the nation’s lockdown and restart its economy by July under a three-stage plan – and each state is setting its own pace in easing COVID-19 restrictions.
Gladys Berejiklianm, premier of the country’s most populous state of New South Wales, where people are also being allowed to invite up to five visitors of any age into their homes, warned people not to take advantage of the relaxed restrictions.
“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,” she said.
Schools are also slowly reopening, and public swimming pools with a maximum of 10 people allowed in the water.
“It is such a treat,” said Jess Best, who met up with a friend in a cafe in Sydney. “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.”
But not every business owner is planning to throw open the doors.
Simon Matthews, co-owner of a restaurant in Darwin in the Northern Territory, said restricted gatherings would be difficult to manage.
“It’s very difficult for a business like Pee Wee’s to do a normal trade in two hours – it’s very difficult for us to police. It puts us and our clients in a very difficult situation,” he told ABC News.
Health authorities have stressed coronavirus infections will rise as restrictions are eased.
NSW and Victoria, the country’s second most populous state which is retaining most of its lockdown measures, reported a total of 29 new cases on Friday, a slight increase from the recent daily average of fewer than 20.
The easing of some measures to get people back to work comes a day after the country’s national statistics office reported unprecedented record high job losses.
“While there isn’t too much to be celebrating with the difficult circumstances we face, and particularly yesterday’s unemployment numbers, it is a welcome sign that we are on the way back,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Ms Berejiklian stressed the importance of continuing the focus on testing to successfully roll back restrictions.
“As restrictions are eased today, please come forward and get tested, that’s the only way in which we are going to manage easing restrictions and be able to control the virus,” she said.
State governments have set up coronavirus testing centres and want people to take tests regardless of whether they have symptoms.
The country has recorded 98 deaths associated with the virus, while officials said on Friday that only 50 people remain in hospital with COVID-19.
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