Elated Sydneysiders were emerging from almost four months of “blood, sweat and no beers” early Monday as a long coronavirus lockdown was lifted in Australia’s largest city.
Sydney’s more than five million residents have been subjected to a 106-day lockdown, designed to limit the march of the highly transmissible Delta variant.
With new infections now falling — New South Wales state recorded 477 cases on Sunday — and more than 70 per cent of over-16s double vaccinated, Sydney was dusting off the cobwebs.
A handful of venues — including some bars and slot machine rooms — planned to open at 12:01 am local time to vaccinated customers.
“Be the first to have a cold schooner, and be the first to catch up with friends,” said owners of Easts in the city’s famed Bondi neighbourhood.
Hairdressers will be among those businesses throwing open their doors later in the day, although many have been booked out for weeks to come by shaggy-haired customers.
Since June, shops, schools, salons and offices have been closed for non-essential workers and there have been unprecedented restrictions on personal freedom.
There were bans on everything from travelling more than five kilometres from home, visiting family, playing squash, browsing in supermarkets to attending funerals.
“Very few countries have taken as stringent or extreme an approach to managing Covid as Australia,” Tim Soutphommasane, an academic and former Australian race discrimination commissioner, told AFP.
There will still be limits on mass gatherings and international borders and schools will not fully reopen for a few weeks yet.
But otherwise daily life will look more like normal.
‘You’ve earned it’
For most of the pandemic, Australia successfully suppressed infections through border closures, lockdowns and aggressive testing and tracing.
But the Delta variant put paid to any dream of “Covid-zero”, at least in the largest cities of Melbourne and Sydney which are now pivoting to “living with Covid”.
“It’s a big day for our state,” said New South Wales’ recently appointed conservative premier Dominic Perrottet.
After “100 days of blood, sweat and no beers,” he said, “you’ve earned it.”
But despite the celebratory mood, there are lingering concerns about what reopening will bring.
Perrottet encouraged patrons to treat staff with kindness, with fears that bans on the unvaccinated could lead to protests and confrontation.
There are also fears that reopening will inevitably bring a rash of new infections.
The Australian Medical Association this week pilloried Perrottet when he appeared to shift the focus away from health and onto the economic recovery.
“The AMA supports gradual opening up of the economy and the loosening of restrictions, but it is critical to observe the impact of each step on transmission and case numbers,” the doctors’ body said.
“Otherwise New South Wales may still see hospitals become completely overwhelmed despite high vaccination rates.”