Australia's biggest city reopens after months of lockdown, but only for the vaccinated

SYDNEY – Sydney’s cafes, gyms and restaurants welcomed fully vaccinated customers again on Monday after a nearly four-month lockdown as Australia aims to live with the coronavirus and gradually reopen with high vaccination rates.

Some pubs in Sydney, Australia’s largest city, opened at 12:01 a.m. (9:01 a.m. Sunday ET) and friends and families huddled for a midnight beer, television footage and social media images were shown.

“I see it as a day of freedom, it’s a day of freedom,” New South Wales Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet told reporters in Sydney, the state’s capital. “We are leading the nation out of this pandemic, but this will be a challenge.”

Perrottet warned that infections would increase after the reopening, and virus-free states like Western Australia and Queensland are watching what life will be like with Covid-19 as health systems could be overwhelmed.

Vaccinated customers drink beer together in a Sydney pub on Monday.Loren Elliott / Reuters

While the double-dose vaccination rate in people over 16 in New South Wales reached 74 percent, the rate in neighboring Queensland, whose borders remain closed to Sydney-Siders, is only 52 percent, and the state government has an elimination strategy with quick lockdowns to control any outbreak .

Perrottet has declared the lockdowns in New South Wales over and strongly supports the reopening in Sydney, whose more than 5 million inhabitants were subjected to severe restrictions from mid-June after an outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant.

The outbreak has since spread to Melbourne and Canberra, enforcing lockdowns in these cities even as case numbers in New South Wales decline.

On Monday, the state reported 496 new locally acquired cases, well below its peak last month, while neighboring Victoria recorded 1,612 new infections, its lowest level in five days.

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Under the loose rules for New South Wales, retail stores and restaurants were reopened at reduced capacity and more people who had been vaccinated were allowed to gather in homes and attend weddings and funerals.

The state is aiming for a vaccination rate of 80 percent by the end of October when more curbs are loosened. But the unvaccinated have to stay at home until December 1st.

Steven Speed, the host at Sydney’s oldest pub, Fortune of War, told Reuters he hoped it would be the last lockdown after 18 months of restrictions.

“Just the cost of closing and opening, closing and opening – they are enormous,” said Speed, whose most loyal customers returned to their first beer after the lockdown with friends on Monday from 9am.

Kyl Raggio, owner of KR Performance gym in the Randwick suburb of Sydney, said Australia could no longer afford to rely on rolling lockdowns to fight the virus.

“I hope that we can deal with everything that is happening now, and with a view to the rest of the world, hopefully stay open and do our thing,” said Raggio, who welcomed his customers back to his training facility early on Monday morning.

Vaccinated customers receive haircuts at a Sydney hair salon on Monday.Loren Elliott / Reuters

Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged Sydney residents to “enjoy the moment”.

“Today is a day so many have been looking forward to – a day when we will celebrate things that we take for granted,” he said.

Morrison, who has to call elections before next May, has come under pressure to urge all states to reopen their borders to boost the economy and allow families separated by the state border closings to reunite by Christmas . Some states with few cases have not said when they will reopen their borders.

As vaccine adoption picks up pace, Australia plans a staggered return to normal, allowing fully vaccinated residents to travel freely in and out of the country from November, although New South Wales plans to bring those dates forward.

Australia closed its international borders in March 2020 and helped keep coronavirus numbers relatively low at 130,000 cases and 1,448 deaths.

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