By MELANIE BURTON and SONALI PAUL, Reuters
MELBOURNE — Melbourne residents flocked to the city’s pubs, restaurants and hair salons in the early hours of Friday after the world’s most locked-down city emerged from its latest spate of restrictions designed to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Australia’s second-largest city has so far endured 262 days, or nearly nine months, of restrictions during six separate lockdowns since March 2020, representing the longest cumulative lockdown for any city in the world.
Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, last year went through 234 straight days of lockdown.
In Melbourne, people were seen cheering and clapping from their balconies, while cars honked horns continuously at 11:59 p.m. on Thursday when lockdown restrictions in place since early August ended.
Many venues, including food outlets and even haircutters, opened at the unusual hour for the occasion.
Josh Mihan, owner of The Bearded Man barber shop in Melbourne, told Reuters he is nearly booked out for the next month and he is encouraging customers to make appointments for Christmas.
“We all love cutting hair and being on the floor is such a lovely feeling, being around people,” he said.
“I have urged our customer base, make sure you have booked in your Christmas cut.”
Similar jubilant scenes were seen in the country’s largest city, Sydney, almost two weeks ago, when authorities started easing restrictions as COVID-19 vaccination rates rose.
Just over 70% of adults in Australia are now fully vaccinated and many residents are planning to fly overseas again as international border restrictions start to ease from November.
Qantas Airways Ltd said on Friday that it would speed up plans to restart flights to many destinations and upsize some planes amid “massive demand.”
“This is a wonderful day — Australia is ready for take-off,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said shortly after the Qantas announcement.
Under relaxed rules in Melbourne, restaurants and cafes can reopen with up to 20 people indoors and 50 outdoors — all of whom must be vaccinated — while 10 guests can gather at homes. Masks will remain mandatory.
Australia had stayed largely virus-free for most of this year until a third wave of infections fueled by the Delta variant spread across its southeast from late June, forcing months-long lockdowns in its largest cities.
The virus got a foothold in Sydney, Melbourne and the nation’s capital, Canberra, while the rest of the country remains largely COVID-19 free.
Melbourne’s reopening will be a boost for the country’s A$2 trillion ($1.5 trillion) economy after recent lockdowns pushed it to the brink of a second recession in as many years.
Even with the Delta outbreaks, Australia’s coronavirus numbers are still far lower than those of many comparable nations, with some 152,000 cases and 1,590 deaths. —Reuters