Coronavirus: Australian pub cluster adds to second-wave fears as authorities crack down on parties

New South Wales Health workers administer Covid-19 tests to people in their cars at the Crossroads Hotel testing centre in Sydney, Australia, on July 11, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (REUTERS, AFP) - Australia's most populous state reported 14 new cases of Covid-19 on Monday (July 13), with a growing cluster at a pub used by freight drivers travelling the country adding to fears of a second national wave of the virus.

The new cases in New South Wales come after neighbouring Victoria state last week forced about 5 million people back into lockdown after a surge of new coronavirus cases.

Australia has avoided the high Covid-19 casualty numbers of other nations with swift and strict measures, recording fewer than 10,000 coronavirus cases in total, or about a sixth of the daily cases seen in the United States in recent days.

However, authorities are worried about rising cases of community transmission.

This accounted for 8 of the 14 new cases in New South Wales in the last 24 hours, while the rest were people who have returned from overseas and are already in hotel quarantine or have returned from Victoria.

The bulk of these community transmission cases were people who recently visited a pub in southwest Sydney, the Crossroads Hotel, taking the cluster to 13 in all.

"The concern is that this hotel is used by freight drivers who are transporting essential supplies across the country," Australia's Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

"They are not being tested."

In a bid to curtail the spread, authorities urged anyone who attended the pub to isolate for two weeks and get tested. On Monday, long lines of cars were waiting more than three hours to attend a drive-through test clinic at the venue.

A dozen military personnel who visited the pub while poised to deploy on an anti-virus mission were on Monday in isolation at an army base in rural New South Wales.

The virus has already spread to at least one more high-traffic venue, with a patron at Sydney's Star casino on July 4 testing positive for Covid-19, the Star Entertainment Group Ltd said.

In Victoria state, authorities on Monday reported 177 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, the eighth consecutive day of triple digit rises in Covid-19 cases, but down from 273 cases the previous day.

"It may not be our peak yet," Victoria's Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton told reporters in Melbourne.

"I would like to see a week of decreasing numbers."

He also said four or five new coronavirus outbreaks are emerging in the state each day, including aged-care homes, a supermarket, a construction site and a meatworks.

Australia's Minister for Health Greg Hunt said 1,000 military personnel had been dispatched to help state officials curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

Sydney residents were warned on Monday to put the brakes on partying because of new outbreaks and dance parties exceeding maximum numbers.

New South Wales police assistant commissioner Tony Cooke on Monday slammed the "moronic behaviour of people at dance parties", after local media published footage of large private get-togethers in Sydney's wealthy eastern suburbs.

City residents are allowed a maximum of 20 visitors to their homes under restrictions which have been gradually eased in recent weeks as the number of infections dwindled.


NSW police minister David Elliott warned that if the situation was not brought under control, pubs could be closed again.

"If we have to close hotels and clubs again, the patrons will have to take some of the ownership of that," he told a press conference on Monday.

"I will, however, work to my dying breath to make sure that that doesn't happen."

Police have stepped up penalties for breaching coronavirus restrictions in recent days, with almost Aus$220,000 (S$212,600) in fines handed out across Melbourne in the past 24 hours.

On Friday, a group whose house party was exposed by their large KFC order was fined A$26,000 while six people from Victoria who tried to cross Queensland's border illegally were each fined A$4,000 the following night.

Scientists, meanwhile, have begun trials of a potential Covid-19 vaccine developed at the University of Queensland.

Volunteers were due to receive the first vaccine dose on Monday morning. Preliminary results of the trial are expected to be released by the end of September, the university said.

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