Melbourne starts snap COVID-19 lockdown, no crowds at Australian Open

Melbourne starts snap COVID-19 lockdown, no crowds at Australian Open

A person crosses an empty street on the first day of a five-day COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne
A person crosses a street in Melbourne on Feb 13, 2021. (File photo: Reuters/Sandra Sanders)

MELBOURNE: Australia's second most populous state Victoria entered a five-day lockdown on Saturday (Feb 13) as authorities raced to prevent a third wave of COVID-19 cases sparked by the highly infectious UK variant.

One new locally acquired case was confirmed in the past 24 hours, health authorities said on Saturday, taking the number of cases tied to a quarantine hotel at Melbourne airport to 14 and total active cases in the state to 20.

"A lot of people will be hurting today. This is not the position Victorians wanted to be in but I can't have a situation where in two weeks' time, we look back and wish we had taken these decisions now," Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters on Saturday.

An essential worker walks past a 'Please Stay Home' sign on the first day of a five-day C
An essential worker walks past a 'Please Stay Home' sign on the first day of a five-day lockdown implemented in the state of Victoria in response to a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Melbourne, Australia, February 13, 2021. REUTERS/Sandra Sanders

International flights to Melbourne will be stopped to Wednesday, after five en-route, with about 100 passengers, land on Saturday.

All 14 cases in the airport cluster are due to the highly infectious UK variant of the novel coronavirus. So far only direct contacts of workers at the hotel have tested positive.

"It's contained in that sense. There is concern in Victoria about spread into the community," Australia's Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly told reporters.

Streets in downtown Melbourne, the state's capital, and its suburbs were almost empty early Saturday, with people ordered to stay home for all but essential shopping, two hours of outdoor exercise, caregiving, or work that cannot be done from home.

A man walks past a 'Please Stay Home' sign on the first day of a five-day COVID-19 lockdo
A man walks past a 'Please Stay Home' sign on the first day of a five-day lockdown implemented in the state of Victoria in response to a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Melbourne, Australia, February 13, 2021. REUTERS/Sandra Sanders

Among the "essential" work, play at the Australian Open, the year's first Grand Slam tennis event which runs to Feb 21, continued, but fans were banned through Wednesday. Thousands were forced to leave mid-matches before midnight on Friday.

Players missed the crowd buzz.

"It was a bit disturbing - in some ways sad. ... I just tried to focus on my game," Elina Svitolina said after winning her third-round match.

The lockdown, which has shut restaurants and cafes for all but takeaway, hit just as Melbourne had geared up for the biggest weekend in nearly a year, with Lunar New Year celebrations, Valentine's Day and Australian Open crowds.

Melbourne last year endured a 111-day lockdown, one of the strictest and longest in the world at the time, to stem a coronavirus outbreak which lead to more than 800 deaths.

"It's the busiest weekend of the year for us. I'm sitting here making 178 heartbreaking phone calls to see if I can get them to rebook," said Will Baa, owner of Lover, a restaurant in the hip district of Windsor.

Protective Services Officers speak to a man on the first day of a five-day COVID-19 lockdown in Mel
Victoria Police Protective Services Officers speak to a man on the first day of a five-day lockdown implemented in the state of Victoria in response to a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Melbourne, Australia, February 13, 2021. REUTERS/Sandra Sanders

A man walks down an empty city laneway on the first day of a five-day COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne
A man walks down an empty city laneway on the first day of a five-day lockdown implemented in the state of Victoria in response to a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Melbourne, Australia, February 13, 2021. REUTERS/Sandra Sanders

"Just fingers crossed that it only does extend for the short period of five days," he said.

More broadly, Australia is rated among the world's most successful countries in tackling the pandemic, largely because of decisive lockdowns and borders sealed to all but a trickle of travellers. With a population of 25 million, there have been around 22,200 community cases and 909 deaths.

New Zealand on Saturday reported one death of a patient with COVID-19. The person had been taken to hospital from quarantine for an unrelated condition and later tested positive. That case has yet to be included in the country's total of 25 COVID-19 deaths.

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Source: Reuters

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