Sydneysiders defied grey skies and drizzle to celebrate the end of almost 4 months of lockdown on Monday, hoping to put behind them a period of “blood, sweat and no beers” in Australia’s biggest city.
Sydney’s more than five million residents have been subjected to a 106-day lockdown, designed to restrict the march of the highly transmissible Delta variant.
With new infections now falling — New South Wales state recorded 496 cases on Monday — and more than 70 percent of over-16s double vaccinated, the metropolis is dusting off the cobwebs.
Cafes and restaurants threw open their doors to everyone who could prove they have been vaccinated, including 35-year-old Peter Morgan, who used to be among these relishing in newly regained freedoms.
“Even though it is like freezing outside it is so good,” he said. “It’s just these little things which offset a lot of the stresses of like being locked down.”
“The first issue I’m going to do is see my parents. Actually no, no longer see my parents. I’m going to go to Lakemba to get a Lebanese mixed plate and then go see my parents,” he said.
Across the city shaggy haired clients lined up outside hairdressers to get eyebrow-raising home cuts and dye jobs repaired.
“I could not wait to be in here to get the hair done,” said Brett Toelle, a salon client in Surry Hills, whose last trim used to be 15 weeks ago. “That’s the longest time I’ve ever been barring a haircut.”
For many, the end of lockdown used to be a chance to get into the shops.
At midnight, hundreds of people poured into a discount Kmart shop in the western Sydney suburb of Mount Druitt, with social media images showing long queues forming inside.
For others, it used to be a chance to put their business back on track.
“It’s a great vibe this morning,” said Hannah Simmons, owner of Gordon’s Cafe in the beachside suburb of Clovelly whose commercial enterprise survived the lockdown by offering takeaway.
“The outside seating will be a little bit dreary however this is OK. We are definitely excited to be again there and open. That’s great.”
Since June, shops, schools, salons and workplaces have been closed for non-essential workers and there have been remarkable restrictions on personal freedom.
There have been bans on everything from travelling more than five kilometres (three miles) from home, traveling family, enjoying squash, browsing in supermarkets to attending funerals.
“Very few nations have taken as stringent or extreme an strategy to managing Covid as Australia,” Tim Soutphommasane, an academic and former Australian race discrimination commissioner, told.
For most of the pandemic, Australia successfully suppressed infections through border closures, lockdowns and aggressive testing and tracing.
But the Delta variant put paid to any dream of “Covid-zero”, at least in the largest cities of Melbourne and Sydney which are now pivoting to “living with Covid”.
“It’s a massive day for our state,” stated New South Wales’ recently appointed conservative premier Dominic Perrottet.
After “100 days of blood, sweat and no beers,” he said, “you’ve earned it.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison hailed the day as one to celebrate things as soon as taken for granted: “Being with family and friends, getting a haircut, grabbing a meal together, going to the pub and having a beer with your mates.”
There will nonetheless be limits on mass gatherings and global borders and schools will not totally reopen for a few weeks yet.
But otherwise each day life is opening to look more like normal, with crowds again gathering at bus stops and the hum of site visitors growing a little louder.
Despite the celebratory mood, there are lingering issues that reopening will bring a surge in infections.
The Australian Medical Association pilloried Perrottet when he appeared to shift the focus away from fitness and onto the financial recovery.
“The AMA supports gradual opening up of the economy and the loosening of restrictions, however it is critical to observe the affect of each step on transmission and case numbers,” the doctors’ body said.
“Otherwise New South Wales may still see hospitals emerge as totally overwhelmed despite high vaccination rates.”