SYDNEY: Sydney's cafes, gyms and restaurants welcomed back fully vaccinated customers on Monday (Oct 11) after nearly four months of lockdown as Australia aims to begin living with COVID-19 through higher vaccinations and to gradually reopen the country.
Some pubs in Sydney, Australia's largest city, opened their doors at 12.01am local time on Monday as friends and families huddled for a midnight beer, television footage and social media images showed.
"I think everybody across the state is pretty excited for what has been a long 100 days," New South Wales state Premier Dominic Perrottet told Seven News on Monday.
"It's a great vibe this morning," said Hannah Simmons, owner of Gordon's Café in the beachside suburb of Clovelly, whose business survived the lockdown by offering takeaways.
"The outside seating will be a little bit dreary but that's ok. We are really excited to be back there and open. That's great."
But despite the celebratory mood, there are lingering concerns about what reopening will bring.
"There's obviously a lot of excitement but it certainly has to be tempered by making sure we continue to look out for each other," Perrottet told national broadcaster ABC.
"That's been our success in the past. Everybody making enormous efforts to get vaccinated."
More than 5 million residents in Sydney had been stuck in a hard lockdown since June to contain the highly infectious Delta variant, which has since spread to Melbourne and the capital, Canberra, forcing lockdowns there.
Perrottet urged Sydneysiders to temper their excitement about coming out of the lockdown as he warned that infections would rise after reopening.
Under the relaxed rules, 10 fully vaccinated people can gather in homes, while 100 can attend weddings and funerals.
Retail stores can open with reduced capacity as the state pushes to hit an 80 per cent vaccine rate around late October, when more curbs will be relaxed. But the unvaccinated must remain at home until Dec 1.
New South Wales lifted lockdown rules after hitting its 70 per cent target of full vaccination for its adult population, with virus-free states watching what living with COVID-19 is going to look like.
With the vaccine rollout gaining momentum, Australia is planning a staggered return to normal, letting fully vaccinated residents enter and leave the country freely from November, although New South Wales plans to bring forward those dates.
Australia shut its international borders in March 2020, helping keep its coronavirus numbers relatively low, with about 127,500 cases and 1,440 deaths. New South Wales on Monday reported 496 new locally acquired cases, the majority in Sydney, up from 477 on Sunday.
"Very few countries have taken as stringent or extreme an approach to managing COVID-19 as Australia," Tim Soutphommasane, an academic and former Australian race discrimination commissioner, told AFP.
There are fears that reopening will inevitably bring a rash of new infections. The Australian Medical Association (AMA) this week criticised Perrottet when he appeared to shift the focus away from health and onto the economic recovery.
"The AMA supports gradual opening up of the economy and the loosening of restrictions, but it is critical to observe the impact of each step on transmission and case numbers," the association said.
"Otherwise New South Wales may still see hospitals become completely overwhelmed despite high vaccination rates."