Australia’s Victoria says COVID-19 curbs to return to pre-Christmas settings

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s Victoria state will start easing coronavirus restrictions from Friday night, after authorities deemed new locally acquired cases detected for the first time in a week in the state will not pose any public health risk.

Victoria, Australia’s second-most populous state, on Friday reported two new cases in people placed in quarantine after they were identified as close contacts of existing cases.

“They have been in hotel isolation because of their household circumstances, they had sought to isolate away from other family members … so they pose no risk to public health more broadly,” state Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters.

Outdoor gathering will be increased to 100 people and households can host up to 30 guests from 11:59 pm local time on Friday, though masks will remain mandatory in public transport, indoor shopping centres and supermarkets.

Crowds at 50% capacity will be allowed into the 100,000-seat Melbourne Cricket Ground when the Australian Football League season starts, the highest permitted threshold in almost a year since all sports were suspended.

“It’s been a hard slog, but Victorians are doing what they do best as we work to beat this virus, staying the course and looking out for each other,” Andrews said.

In late December, Victoria restricted gatherings at homes to 15 people from 30 and made masks mandatory indoors after new infections were detected in the community.

Restrictions were further tightened early this month to contain a virus cluster linked to a quarantine hotel in the state capital Melbourne.

Australia has been reporting zero or low single-digit cases for the last several weeks after quashing fresh outbreaks through snap lockdowns and speedy contact tracing.

It has reported just under 29,000 cases and 909 deaths – most of them in Victoria – since the pandemic began.