SYDNEY (Reuters) – Restaurants, cafes and bars in Australia’s most populous state reopened on Friday after a two-month coronavirus lockdown, boosting the federal government’s bid to get people back in work and the economy back on track.
The easing of some quarantine measures in New South Wales (NSW) state came 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.
“While there isn’t too much to be celebrating with the difficult circumstances we face, and particularly yesterday’s unemployment numbers, it is welcome sign that we are on the way back,” Morrison said on Friday.
In Sydney, locals braved a cold, wet morning to catch up with friends and family over a coffee as cafes, restaurants and bars opened under the proviso they limit patrons to 10 at any one time.
“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.
“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.
NSW and Victoria, the country’s second most populous state, reported a total of 29 new cases on Friday, a bump up from the recent daily average of fewer than 20.
Australia has recorded just over 7,000 COVID-19 cases, including 98 deaths, significantly below the levels reported in North America and Europe. Officials said on Friday that only 50 people remained in hospital.
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 virus’ spread.
State and territory leaders across the country are now rolling out a three-stage plan, following different timetables, to remove lockdown measures.
Morrison wants the bulk of restrictions gone by July 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.
In NSW, schools are slowly reopening, private households will be able to have five guests, public gatherings were expanded to 10 people from two and public swimming pools reopened with a maximum of 10 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.”
BEERS ON TAP
In the Northern Territory, where case numbers have been low and there have been no deaths, pubs opened with no restrictions on patron numbers.
“I think I’ve earned one and I think I lot of territorians out there have earned a beer as well,” Chief Minister Michael Gunner said, pouring a beer at the Cavenagh Hotel in Darwin as the clock struck midday.
Victoria, which reported 21 new cases, is currently retaining most of its lockdown measures.
Morrison is hoping the resumption of some businesses will help get the economy on a firmer footing, a goal that has been partly overshadowed by a diplomatic spat with China, Australia’s largest trading partner, over Australia’s push for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.
China earlier this week suspended the export licences of several of Australia’s largest beef processors and proposed tariffs of 80% on Australian barley shipments, in what many viewed as retaliatory actions.
“When it comes to our relationship with China, it is built on mutual benefit,” Morrison said on Friday.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; additional reporting by Jill Gralow and James Redmayne; editing by Jane Wardell)