Sydney Makes Mask-Wearing Mandatory as Virus Clusters Spread
Pedestrians wears protective mask while walking in the Manly suburb of Sydney, Australia. (Photographer: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg)

Sydney Makes Mask-Wearing Mandatory as Virus Clusters Spread

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Mask-wearing in Sydney will become compulsory in most indoor public venues as Australian health authorities battle to get on top of new virus clusters that have disrupted the nation’s peak summer holiday period.

All residents of Australia’s largest city will be required from Monday to wear masks when shopping, on public transport, in cinemas and casinos and in places of worship, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney on Saturday. Individuals breaching the rule, which will also apply in Wollongong, Central Coast and Blue Mountains, will be issued with a A$200 ($154) fine, she said.

New South Wales added seven new locally acquired cases in the past 24 hours, increasing the size of a cluster originally confined to the Northern Beaches region of Sydney that spread to other areas of the city and has now infected more than 150 people. The premier on Saturday announced other restrictions, including limiting the size of gym classes, weddings and funerals.

“This strategy in New South Wales is to keep life as normal as possible but also to make sure we maintain and even increase economic activity,” Berejiklian said.

The announcement came as the neighboring state of Victoria said it had detected 10 new virus cases acquired through local transmission, the majority linked to an outbreak in the capital Melbourne. That city last year endured one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns, and had previously been the only place in Australia where mask-wearing had been made mandatory.

Australia has managed to largely suppress community transmission through rigorous testing and contact tracing, and by placing restrictions on international arrivals and isolating all travelers returning from overseas trips for 14 days in quarantine hotels.

Authorities believe the new outbreaks in Australia’s two most populous states are likely connected, with the removal of many interstate border restrictions allowing people to travel more freely during the peak summer holiday season. The detection of the latest clusters has led some states to reinstall hard borders, causing havoc for thousands of families who traveled interstate for vacations.

Berejiklian on Friday said she didn’t consider Victoria’s decision to close its border to New South Wales as “a good use of resources.” On Saturday, Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley responded by saying he made “no apologies” for the decision after transmission testing had shown his state’s outbreak had originated in Sydney.

The New South Wales branch of the Australian Medical Association welcomed the decision to make masks mandatory in Sydney, following Victoria’s decision to implement the measure across the state on Thursday.

“This is a crucial decision –- particularly as more people will be returning to work after the holidays and trains and buses become increasingly crowded,” it said in a statement.

Other changes to rules announced on Saturday included making the southern areas of Northern Beaches viewed as part of Greater Sydney, allowing for some easing of restrictions in those suburbs. For the rest of that region, stay-at-home orders will remain in place until Jan. 9, with no visitors allowed and non-essential businesses to stay closed.

Despite the latest restrictions on Sydney, Berejiklian said she remains committed to allowing a cricket match to proceed from Jan. 7 at the Sydney Cricket Ground between Australia and India. The game will have crowds of up to 24,000 people a day over as many as five days.

“This is an example where the New South Wales government strategy is to keep jobs, to keep community morale and wellbeing, while making sure we are Covid-safe,” she said.

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