City centres in Australia go quiet as Omicron causes 'shadow lockdowns'

Despite an easing of most restrictions, many residents in major Australian cities have opted to stay away from workplaces and crowds. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY - Much of Australia appears to be in the grip of an unofficial lockdown as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus sweeps through the country, taking a heavy toll on businesses and leaving city centres feeling like ghost towns.

Despite an easing of most restrictions, many residents in major cities such as Sydney and Melbourne have opted to stay away from workplaces and crowds due to high numbers of cases involving the highly transmissible but less severe Omicron.

In Sydney, visits to retail, hospitality and recreation venues in the city centre are down 42 per cent than before the pandemic. Public transport use has been down as much as 70 per cent. Across the Central Business District in Sydney, many cafes and retail stores have closed for good and "for lease" signs are common.

The executive director of business advocacy body Business Sydney, Mr Paul Nicolaou, said Sydney's CBD was suffering due to a lack of foot traffic and reduced consumer spending.

"Cases have increased well beyond levels seen in previous occurrences and continue to have a material economic impact as people isolate (themselves) in a 'shadow lockdown' and are shopping, dining and entertaining from home," he wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald.

The states of New South Wales (NSW), Victoria and Queensland have been battling severe Omicron outbreaks that erupted in December, but there are hopes that the peak has passed.

Case numbers began dipping in these states two weeks ago and hospitalisations and intensive care cases have also begun to ease.

About 4,600 Covid-19 patients were in hospitals around the country on Wednesday (Feb 2), from a peak of almost 5,400 a week earlier.

Hospitalisations in all states have been dropping. There were 347 Covid-19 patients in intensive care units across Australia on Wednesday, from a peak of 424 on Jan 21.

Seventy people died on Wednesday, from a peak of 98 on Jan 28.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday that he was "cautiously optimistic" about Omicron's trajectory and the prospects for measures such as further easing of border restrictions.

"We've seen the peaks of Omicron, I think, come through in both of those states (NSW and Victoria)," he told reporters.

There are 286,503 active Covid-19 cases among Australia's 25.7 million residents. PHOTO: REUTERS

Despite signs that life is slowly trickling back to major city centres, they remain quiet.

Although falling, Covid-19 case numbers remain high. Australia on Wednesday recorded 40,090 cases, including 11,807 in NSW, 14,553 in Victoria and 9,630 in Queensland.

There are 286,503 active cases among the country's 25.7 million residents.

Countless others have been forced to isolate after coming into contact with confirmed cases.

In NSW, for instance, people who live with someone who tests positive or who has come into extended contact with them must self-isolate for seven days.

The slowdowns in the city centres have led to business closures and downsizing.

Office towers and commercial property holders have reported a plunge in demand that has led to high vacancies and falling rents.

In Sydney's city centre, office rents fell 5 per cent last year and 11 per cent in 2020. In Melbourne's city centre, rents dropped 6 per cent last year and 12 per cent in 2020.

Analysts believe commercial rents are not expected to start increasing until at least 2023.

The chief executive officer of real estate group Laing and Simmons, Ms Leanne Pilkington, told Sydney's Daily Telegraph that office demand was likely to increase after Omicron passes, but will not return to pre-pandemic levels.

"There will be a much higher level of flexibility in allowing people to work from home," she said.

"Just walking through the city and driving down some of the high streets you can see it. There are signs in the windows and bars and cafes have closed."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.