AFP, October 21, 2021– Melbourne reopened Friday after enduring one of the world’s most prolonged series of lockdowns, with relieved residents toasting their freedom in bars and restaurants or queueing for desperately needed haircuts.
The five million people living in Australia’s second-biggest city have spent more than 260 days under lockdown since the beginning of the pandemic.
But now that 70 percent of eligible people in Melbourne and surrounding Victoria state are fully vaccinated, many of the restrictions that began on August 5 have been lifted.
“As my kids say – there’s a big vibe today,” Victoria state premier Dan Andrews joked. “You can feel the optimism. You can sense the pride in what’s been achieved.”
“I’m trying not to sound like some kind of soppy dad here, but I am proud, bloody proud of this state.”
He urged residents to “get out there” and “get a trim, order a meal or buy a mate a drink”.
A total of six lockdowns have taken their toll on the once-buzzing city, which has long prided itself on its vibrant arts scene and cafe culture.
In 2021, it lost the mantle of Australia’s most liveable city amid violent anti-lockdown protests and residents leaving to Covid-free regional towns.
“I’d forgotten what they looked like,” said cafe patron George, who was reuniting with friends for the first time.
“We’re waiting to really start celebrating properly,” he told AFP. “We’re just going to go crazy.”
Struggling bar, restaurant and salon owners hailed the return of their customers and a welcome onslaught of business.
“People are just going nuts, trying to book and calling: ‘Please can you squeeze me in?’,” said Marcela Rodriguez, co-founder of Vamos Fitzroy in Melbourne’s Latin quarter.
“Now we need to be very, very careful with numbers and complying with all the rules so I think that is the challenge,” she told Melbourne newspaper The Age.
One inner-city hairdresser said people had been queueing since 4.30 am and were still waiting for cuts.
At another salon, Ryan McLerie said he had been unable to give haircuts for too long. “It is super nuts to be back today and it is a sunny day so it’s perfect,” he told AFP.
Despite increased freedoms for fully vaccinated Melbourne residents, they still cannot leave the city and retail shops must remain closed until the double-dose rate lifts to 80 percent — likely within weeks.
Limits on patrons at cafes, bars and restaurants will remain in place, squeezing business owners who are also grappling with staff shortages caused by international border closures.
Victoria is now poised to lift quarantine requirements for international travellers at the end of the month. Sydney and surrounding New South Wales state are also set to scrap the requirements on November 1.
While varying rules make it difficult to directly compare lockdowns — Toronto eateries were reportedly closed to diners for more than 360 days, while Buenos Aires was under harsh restrictions for much of 2020 — Melbourne has spent among the most days under stay-at-home orders.
Australia has so far been spared the worst of the pandemic, recording about 150,000 cases and 1,500 deaths in a population of 25 million.
Authorities in Victoria have warned hospitals will likely come under “intense pressure” as a result of the decision to reopen even as Covid surges there, with 2,232 new cases recorded Thursday.
But after pursuing “Covid zero” for much of the pandemic, Melbourne has followed Sydney’s lead in abandoning the strategy after failing to contain the highly infectious Delta variant. By William West