MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - Australian officials closed Sydney's iconic Bondi Beach on Saturday (March 21) after thousands of people flocked there in recent days, defying social distancing orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, amid an unusually warm autumn spell.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the crowds on the country's most famous strip of sand were "unacceptable" as he reported the number of infections across Australia had risen to 874. The death toll was seven, unchanged from a day earlier.
New South Wales state police minister David Elliott announced Bondi's closure, warning "this is going to become the new norm" if people did not comply with regulations that prohibit more than 500 people gathering at a non-essential event.
"This is not something we are doing because we are the fun police," Mr Elliott said in a televised news conference. "This is about saving lives. We will be closing down the type of iconic activities that unfortunately we've come ... to love and adore about our lifestyle."
He said lifeguards who patrol the state's many beaches will conduct head counts and, if there are more than 500 people at any one location, the beach will be closed and people ordered to move on.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced stricter rules on socialising on Friday, requiring indoor venues such as bars and restaurants to maintain a density of no more than one person per 4 sq m of floor space. The overall limits of 100 people gathered indoors and 500 outdoors remained in force.
In Victoria, the state government responded to public pressure and revoked an exemption given to Crown Resort's Melbourne casino from those tougher rules.
"We are practising what we were told to do," a Crown representative told Reuters by telephone.
Crown and Sydney rival Star Entertainment Group are licensed to operate a total of more than gaming 4,000 machines. Both introduced social-distancing measures last week, including switching off every second electronic gaming machine and table, but their shares have tumbled on concerns about their future revenue.
The Australian response to the coronavirus pandemic, while unprecedented, has been less severe than in parts of Europe and North America, where higher rates of infection have led to more sweeping public lock downs.
Schools in Australia remain open, with Mr Morrison citing medical advice despite some criticism of that tactic.
However, Victoria state partially broke that national agreement on Saturday when it ordered public schools in the state to close for two days next week to trial the viability of online education for pupils.