SYDNEY (REUTERS) - 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 the coronavirus and gradually reopen the country.
Some pubs in Sydney, Australia's largest city, opened their doors at 12.01am on Monday as friends and families huddled for a midnight beer, television footage and social media images showed.
"I see it as a day of freedom, it's a freedom day," New South Wales (NSW) state Premier Dominic Perrottet told reporters in Sydney, the state capital. "We are leading the nation out of this pandemic but this will be a challenge."
Mr Perrottet warned that infections would rise after reopening, and virus-free states such as Western Australia and Queensland are watching what living with Covid-19 is going to look like amid concerns healthcare systems could be overwhelmed.
While NSW's dual-dose vaccination rate in people above 16 hit 74 per cent, in neighbouring Queensland, whose borders remain closed to Sydney-siders, the rate is only 52 per cent and the state government is following an elimination strategy with rapid lockdowns to control any outbreak.
Mr Perrottet has declared an end to lockdowns in NSW and has strong support for reopening in Sydney, whose more than five million residents endured severe restrictions from mid-June following an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant.
The outbreak has since spread to Melbourne and Canberra, forcing lockdowns in those cities, even as case numbers dwindle in NSW.
New South Wales on Monday reported 496 new locally acquired cases, well down from its peak last month, while Victoria logged 1,612 new infections, the lowest in five days.
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.
Mr Steven Speed, the publican at Sydney's oldest pub, Fortune of War, told Reuters he hoped it was the last lockdown after 18 months of restrictions.
"Just the costs of closing down and opening up, closing down and opening up - they're huge," said Mr Speed, whose most loyal customers returned from 9am on Monday for the first post-lockdown beers with friends.
Mr Kyl Raggio, owner of the KR Performance gym in the Sydney suburb of Randwick, said Australia could no longer afford to rely on rolling lockdowns to combat the virus.
"I hope that we can deal with whatever happens now moving forward, looking at the rest of the world hopefully we can stay open and do our thing," said Mr Raggio, who welcomed his clients back into his training facility early Monday morning.
"Enjoy the moment, enjoy it with your family and friends," Prime Minister Scott Morrison wished Sydney residents. "Today is a day so many have been looking forward to - a day when things we take for granted, we will celebrate."
Mr Morrison, who must call an election before next May, has come under pressure to press all states to reopen borders to bolster the economy and allow families separated by state border closures to reunite by Christmas. Some states with few cases have not said when they will reopen their borders.
With the vaccine roll-out gaining momentum, Australia is planning a staggered return to normal, letting fully vaccinated residents enter and leave the country freely from next month, although New South Wales plans to bring forward those dates.
Australia shut its international borders in March last year, helping keep its coronavirus numbers relatively low, with 127,500 cases and 1,440 deaths.