SYDNEY: Australian officials will use fines and the threat of jail to enforce a new rule limiting public gatherings to two people, as the country's coronavirus infection rate slowed but the death toll crept higher.
New South Wales and Victoria, the country's two most populous states, will introduce the penalties from midnight on Monday (Mar 30) to enforce national rules set by the federal government on Sunday.
Australia is strengthening limited contact rules for the public as it seeks to capitalise on a slowdown in the growth of new coronavirus cases.
Officials said the rate of new infections has halved in the past week under existing restrictions on movement to about 4,200 people nationally, while the death toll rose to 17.
"It is only in exceptional circumstances that you should leave home," New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said in Sydney. "We will get through this. We are in a position now which allows us to control the spread as much as possible."
New South Wales and Victoria will fine people between A$1,000 (US$616) and A$1,600 for breaching the rules. In New South Wales, people could also face six months' jail.
"Unless you want to be burying an elderly relative or your best mate, or your parents ... do the right thing," Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said in Melbourne on Monday.
The small island state of Tasmania also imposed a two-person limit on public gatherings from midnight, and became the country's first state to ban people from alternating between their main home and their second home, if they have one.
"There will not be movement between your shack and your primary place of residence, allowing you to alternate and sleep nights in both," state premier Peter Gutwein said, using the slang for holiday homes.
"You will need to make a choice," he added.
The island state reported its first coronavirus death overnight.
Amid an extraordinary shutdown of businesses and resulting staff layoffs, Australia's regulators and banks have taken measures to pause loan repayments for six months, hoping to "hibernate" businesses until the crisis ends.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a six-month moratorium on landlords evicting renters on Sunday and urged businesses to hold off on more job cuts until he unveiled a third stimulus package.
Two sources with knowledge of the package said that would be released later on Monday and would include wage subsidies for people who have been laid off.
The government and the country's central bank have already announced stimulus packages worth around A$190 billion as the country heads for its first recession in almost three decades.
In an attempt to overcome concerns that distressed assets could be snapped up by overseas buyers, the government said on Monday that all foreign investments would go through the country's Foreign Investment Review Board.
The change cuts the takeover threshold for FIRB scrutiny from A$1.2 billion, in most cases, to zero and applies to overseas buyers.
Meanwhile, officials carried out new requirements that Australians returning home by plane be immediately taken into monitored quarantine in hotels or other facilities for 14 days, under police supervision. Australia's borders are closed to all but returning citizens and permanent residents.
In Western Australia state, hundreds of people were due to be taken from the Vasco da Gama cruise ship to Rottnest Island, a tourist destination near Perth, or hotels near the state capital of Perth for quarantine, ship owner Cruise & Maritime Voyages said.
The danger posed by cruise ships has loomed large in Australia after passengers who were allowed to disembark the Ruby Princess liner in Sydney without any medical checks were later diagnosed with COVID-19.