By Sonali Paul
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia’s most populous state, home to Sydney, will allow restaurants, playgrounds and outdoor pools to reopen on Friday as extensive testing has shown the spread of the coronavirus has slowed sharply, New South Wales state’s premier said on Sunday.
The state has been worst hit by the coronavirus in Australia, with about 45% of the country’s confirmed cases and deaths. However it recorded just two new cases on Saturday out of nearly 10,000 people tested, clearing the way for a cautious loosening of lockdown measures.
“Just because we’re easing restrictions doesn’t mean the virus is less deadly or less of a threat. All it means is we have done well to date,” Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters on Sunday.
From May 15, New South Wales will allow cafes and restaurants to seat 10 patrons at a time, permit outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people, and visits of up to five people to a household.
Playgrounds and outdoor pools will also be allowed to reopen with strict limits.
The moves are in line with a three-step plan to relax lockdown measures outlined by the Australian government on Friday, which would see nearly 1 million people return to work by July.
Places of worship in New South Wales (NSW) will be permitted to open to up to 10 people from Friday. Weddings, which had been restricted to two guests, will be able to host up to 10, and indoor funerals will be allowed to have 20 mourners.
Schools in NSW are set to reopen from Monday, but only allowing students to attend one day a week on a staggered basis.
Berejiklian gave no time frame for any further reopening of the economy, saying that would depend on infection rates.
“We continue to take a cautious approach in New South Wales, but also one which has a focus on jobs and the economy, because we can’t continue to live like this for the next year or until there is a vaccine,” Berejiklian said.
NSW and Victoria, which has had the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the country, have maintained their tight restrictions longer than other states.
Victoria’s premier said he would announce plans for easing lockdown measures in the state on Monday.
Dozens of people protested against the lockdown measures outside Victoria’s state parliament in Melbourne on Sunday, leading police to arrest 10 people for breaching coronavirus restrictions on large gatherings.
“It’s incredibly disappointing that people would be protesting or seeking to suggest we don’t have a pandemic,” Victoria Health Minister Jenny Mikakos told reporters.
Meanwhile Australia’s chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, told reporters in Canberra that state and federal officials will meet on Monday to discuss ways of dealing with the risks of crowds on public transport as businesses start to reopen.
Western Australia (WA), which shut its borders to combat the spread of the virus and has had only 1 new COVID-19 case in the past 11 days, has moved faster than other states in easing restrictions.
On Sunday, WA Premier Mark McGowan said from May 18 the state would allow indoor and outdoor gatherings of up to 20 people, including at cafes and restaurants.
Queensland state will allow restaurants, pubs and cafes to reopen with up to 10 people at a time from next Saturday, and said it would increase that to 20 people from June 12.
In South Australia, from Monday, holiday travel will be allowed within the state, in a push to revive tourism that has been devastated this year by bush fires and the coronavirus.
(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Kenneth Maxwell)