Australia orders business closures to stem spread of virus

A woman in a face mask walks through an empty shopping mall in the central business district of Sydney, Australia, on March 20, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY/CANBERRA • Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia yesterday ordered many venues, including pubs, casinos, gyms and cinemas, to close from midday today to combat the coronavirus after many people appeared to disregard health warnings and congregated in large numbers in recent days.

The number of infections in the nation climbed to 1,098 confirmed cases as of yesterday, with seven deaths linked to the illness.

"I am deeply regretful that those workers and those business owners who will be impacted by this decision will suffer the economic hardship that undoubtedly they will now have to face," Mr Morrison said in a national address yesterday evening.

Restaurants, cafes and catering businesses will be restricted to delivery and takeaway services, he said.

Classrooms should remain open until the end of this term, though parents could take their children out of school if they preferred, Mr Morrison also told reporters after a meeting of the national Cabinet.

Casinos, nightclubs, churches and other places of worship are among other venues that will be closed under the measures that will be reviewed monthly.

Earlier yesterday, Australia unleashed an additional A$66 billion (S$55 billion) in stimulus for the coronavirus-stricken economy, including cash payments of as much as A$100,000 to small businesses, in a second package aimed at averting a recession and at saving jobs.

The plan will provide A$25.2 billion in support to businesses and not-for-profit charities, Mr Morrison said. It will also partially guarantee loans to support A$40 billion in lending to small and medium-sized firms. Unemployment benefits will double and the worst-hit workers will be allowed to access pension savings early.

The new measures dwarf the government's initial A$17.6 billion stimulus package announced on March 12.

As the crisis continues and the economic impact becomes clearer, the government also expects to announce a third fiscal injection as Australia's economy spirals towards its first recession since 1991.

"There will be more packages, there will be more support," Mr Morrison said at a press conference in Canberra's Parliament. "We'll be supercharging our safety net, we'll be supporting our most vulnerable."

All told - including support for the banking system from the central bank - some A$189 billion is being injected into the domestic economy in an unprecedented release of funds to get through the crisis. That is the equivalent of about 10 per cent of Australia's gross domestic product.

Mr Morrison's government is seeking to legislate both its fiscal packages during a unique sitting week in Canberra's Parliament House from today.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2020, with the headline Australia orders business closures to stem spread of virus. Subscribe