Omicron Explosion Damps Australia’s New Year Festivities
(Bloomberg) -- Australia’s most populous state reported a 73% surge in new Covid-19 cases on Friday, an unwelcome spike that is casting a cloud on New Year festivities as authorities urge residents to still party on.
New South Wales, which includes Sydney, saw new infections jump to a record 21,151 -- a far cry from the fewer than 500 cases the state saw earlier this month. The number of people in the hospital for Covid also rose, albeit more modestly, to 832 from 746 on Thursday. Neighboring Victoria state reported 5,919 new Covid infections with 428 hospitalized.
The explosion in infections is a sharp turnaround for a country that was pursuing one of the world’s strictest Covid Zero strategies until recently. Other states also reported steep case increases, with Queensland at 3,118 and South Australia at 2,093. Despite the surge, authorities expect the pressure on hospitals will be manageable with more than 91% of Australians double vaccinated and the dominant variant omicron, which appears to be less severe than other strains.
“What is pleasing is that our health system remains strong,” New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet told reporters, saying the state’s high vaccination rate of nearly 95% will help prevent severe disease. Perrottet acknowledged that people were becoming anxious but said that “we will get through this challenge and come out stronger the other side.”
The surge in cases nationwide, a marked departure from Australia’s initial strategy to suppress the virus, comes as Prime Minister Scott Morrison further eases Covid rules, announcing a greater reliance on rapid antigen tests and cutting the period people must isolate after being exposed or infected. It’s sparked a run on rapid test kits, with pharmacies and supermarkets struggling to meet demand.
All that is threatening to wreck year-end festivities.
Cruise operators in Sydney, which usually anchor boats near the world famous Harbour Bridge for the year-end firework displays, have seen far fewer patrons this year, while restaurants are battling cancellations. Major musical theater shows in both Sydney and Melbourne have been pulled after performers tested positive to Covid and sporting events have also been impacted.
“New Year’s Eve is not canceled but it’s crippled,” Sudhir Warrier, executive chairman of Australian Cruise Group told ABC Radio. The company has filled just a quarter of its usual New Year spots, selling 600 tickets for Friday night’s cruises. “People are scared to book. There is a lot of fear factor.”
The City of Sydney said 17,000 tickets were booked for the year-end fireworks as celebrations go ahead despite the record-shattering Covid cases. Thousands more are expected to flock to the harbor’s foreshore for the displays, but that’s still a fraction when compared with the more than a million revelers of previous years.
“Because the surge in omicron cases is a real concern people should carefully consider the risks of attending events and gatherings,” Lord Mayor Clover Moore told reporters.
The relentless uptick in infections across Australia could be negative for the country’s A$2.1 trillion ($1.5 trillion) economy which was on a strong path to recovery following lengthy lockdowns earlier this year.
“People hear the case numbers and cut back in terms of their economic activity, cut back on going to restaurants, to the shops. They’re self-regulating,” said Shane Oliver, chief economist at AMP Capital Investors Ltd. “This is going to put a damper on the economy in the early part of 2022.”
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