Residents flocked to Melbourne’s pubs, restaurants, and hair salons in the early hours of Friday as the world’s most locked-down city lifted its latest round of restrictions aimed at combating the spread of COVID-19.
Since March 2020, Australia’s second-largest city has been subjected to 262 days of restrictions, or nearly nine months, over six successive lockdowns, the world’s longest cumulative lockdown.
Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, was put on lockdown for 234 days last year.
When the lockdown restrictions that had been in place since early August ended at 11:59 p.m. on Thursday, people in Melbourne were spotted cheering and clapping from their balconies, while motorists honked their horns incessantly.
For the event, several businesses, including restaurants and even hair salons, opened at an uncommon hour.
According to Reuters, Josh Mihan, proprietor of Melbourne’s The Bearded Man barbershop, is nearly booked out for the next month and is urging customers to schedule appointments for Christmas.
“We all enjoy cutting hair, and being on the floor and surrounded by people is a wonderful sensation,” he said. “I’ve recommended our customers to make sure they’ve scheduled their Christmas cuts.”
Similar jubilant scenes were seen in the country’s largest city, Sydney, almost two weeks ago, when authorities started easing restrictions as COVID-19 vaccination rates rose.
Just over 70% of adults in Australia are now fully vaccinated and many residents are planning to fly overseas again as international border restrictions start to ease from November.
From Nov. 1, fully vaccinated international travellers arriving in Sydney and Melbourne will no longer need to quarantine.
Qantas Airways Ltd said on Friday that it would speed up plans to restart flights to many destinations and upsize some planes amid “massive demand”.
Qantas said it would launch a new route from Sydney to Delhi in early December and bring forward plans for flights to Singapore, Fiji, Johannesburg, Bangkok and Phuket.
“This is a wonderful day – Australia is ready for take-off,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said shortly after the Qantas announcement.
A quarantine-free travel bubble between Australia and Singapore could operate from next month, Morrison said, if an agreement is reached as expected.
A LONG LOCKDOWN
Even with Delta outbreaks across Australia’s southeast from late June, coronavirus numbers are still far lower than those of many comparable nations, with some 152,000 cases and 1,590 deaths.
The state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital, reported 2,189 new local COVID-19 cases and 16 deaths on Friday, making it the centre of the Delta outbreak in Australia.
Daily cases in New South Wales, home to Sydney where the Delta variant was first detected in June, dropped slightly to 345. The state recorded a further five deaths.
With a once-stuttering vaccine rollout gaining momentum, authorities no longer plan to rely on extended lockdowns to suppress the virus.
It has been an arduous period, especially for those in Melbourne running a business.
“We’ve been open for a year, and this is our fourth lockdown. It’s been very difficult,” said David Boyle, the head chef at the up-market Farmer’s Daughters restaurant in Melbourne.
Under more relaxed rules, restaurants and cafes can reopen with up to 20 people indoors and 50 outdoors – all of whom must be vaccinated – while 10 guests can gather at homes. Masks will remain mandatory.
The reopening will be a boost for Australia’s A$2 trillion ($1.5 trillion) economy after recent lockdowns pushed it to the brink of a second recession in as many years.
At Melbourne’s once bustling Journal Cafe, waitress Sullivan Kovacs said business was still modest on Friday and that customer numbers would increase once office workers and trades people returned to the city en masse.
“A lot of the traffic comes from people working in the city, and a lot of the tradies haven’t gone back to work yet,” Kovacs said.