COVID-normal summer may be best Victorians get before vaccine6th December 2020
The Andrews government, backed strongly by business groups and welcomed by the state Liberals, marked the state’s 37th consecutive virus-free day by kick-starting nightclubs and scrapping numerical density limits in favour of square-metre caps, meaning restaurants and pub capacity will soar from Monday. Those venues will also allow people to order a beer standing at the bar once again.
Masks will be mandatory only in busy indoor places like supermarkets and shopping centres, public transport and when travelling in ride-share vehicles and taxis. Masks will still need to be carried at all times and they will be recommended, but not required, when physical distancing cannot be maintained.
Dance floors will reopen, paving the way for the return of nightclubs and dancing at weddings, with a limit of 50 people and a density limit of one person per four square metres. People will be able to dance in couples but it is recommended they only dance with people they live with.
“I think it’s wise for people to assume that these settings are here for a period of time, a significant period of time,” Mr Andrews said.
“We will finish up with cases, we will finish up with outbreaks – that is the nature of this virus.
“Whether it’s five days, 15 days, 50 days with no cases, that’s not the same as having a vaccine onshore and properly administered to a sufficient percentage of the community to give us protection.
“The other issue is – what’s the nature of that vaccine? Does it prevent infection or does it mitigate and make it a much less serious disease? All of that stuff [is] not settled yet.”
In a boost for the CBD economy welcomed by lord mayor Sally Capp, the state government announced private sector offices would be able to return to 50 per cent capacity by January 11, up from the current cap of 25 per cent. The Victorian public service, which is being directed to work from home where possible, will be able to return to 25 per cent of office capacity on January 11, with a slated move to 50 per cent capacity on February 8.
Professor Catherine Bennett, epidemiology chair at Deakin University, welcomed the government’s decision to double the number of household visitors but said the strategy announced on Sunday continued to reflect the Victorian government’s cautious approach.
Professor Bennett questioned if it was still necessary for Victorians to wear a mask to the supermarket, noting any potential exposure to coronavirus would likely be “quite casual”.
“Maybe it’s something we can re-look at in January when things quieten down [after Christmas] because supermarkets and shopping centres shouldn’t be an ongoing high-risk area,” she said.
Burnet Institute epidemiologist Professor Mike Toole said he believed that people should continue to wear masks in small retail stores, as well as supermarkets.
However, he said the most important part of the strategy to protect Victoria against new outbreaks would be a strong hotel quarantine program. International flights are set to return to Melbourne on Monday.
“I think that’s our only protection now,” Professor Toole said. “[And] standby contact tracing is our fallback.”
Paul Guerra, chief executive of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said there were now effectively no restrictions that would stop businesses from being operational and viable.
“It’s a fantastic day for Victoria. Importantly, a fantastic day for Victorian businesses,” he said.
His comments were echoed by the Property Council of Australia: “We’ve smashed the virus and now we’re smashing restrictions.”
Despite the easing, the Premier said density limits for major events such as the Boxing Day Test and the Australian Open had still not been decided. NSW’s stadium capacity has returned to 100 per cent. A start date for the tennis is likely to be announced by major events and sports minister Martin Pakula this week.
Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said the changes were overdue but were better late than never.
“[We] welcome a more commonsense approach on masks … It made no sense you could wear a mask in an Albury office and not a Wodonga office,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Premier weighed into the debate over the Australian Defence Force’s role in the state’s hotel quarantine scheme, which became a fierce point of contention between the Victorian and federal government.
The ADF on Friday told the Victorian government it would not monitor individual floors in hotels housing COVID-positive patients. The Morrison government criticised Mr Andrews for not using the ADF in the initial botched program.
“There’s been a lot written and a lot said about these matters and I think that the most recent notification from the ADF puts that matter beyond any doubt, beyond any debt,” Mr Andrews said while acknowledging his gratitude for the ADF’s support.
“This is now a little clearer than it’s perhaps been, but I’m not looking backwards, I’m looking to the future.
“We’ve not been thrown off course by those who endlessly criticise, those who politicise this, those who have been some of the loudest voices, we’ve just stuck to the data, the doctors and the science, and then found it in ourselves as Victorians to see this thing through.”
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Paul is a Victorian political reporter for The Age.
Aisha Dow reports on health for The Age and is a former city reporter.