With hugs, kisses and a drag duo, border between Australia’s two largest states reopens

(Reuters) – Australia’s two biggest states reunited in emotional scenes on Monday as the border – shut for only the second time in 101 years due to the coronavirus pandemic – reopened and the first flights since July landed in Sydney from Melbourne.

Friends, family and a musical duo in drag welcomed passengers as they disembarked Qantas flight QF401 at 7:20 a.m. (2020 GMT Sunday), the first of 26 flights scheduled between the two states on Monday.

“I can come and visit my father when I need to without having to worry about when I can get home,” one passenger said as she disembarked.

The border between New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria states closed in July due to an outbreak of COVID-19 around Melbourne – Australia’s second-largest city. It was the first such border closure since 1919 when Australia was battling the Spanish flu.

The outbreak in Victoria, which totalled more than 20,000 cases, was only contained after a stringent lockdown lasting more than 100 days.

But with Victoria going more than three weeks without detecting any COVID-19 infections, authorities made the decision to reopen the border much to the relief of separated families and the tourism and aviation sectors.

“We never want to be a position again when we have to shut down our borders,” NSW state Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters.

The Sydney-to-Melbourne is the world’s second-busiest air route and Australian lawmakers are keen to revive domestic travel and tourism in a bid to revive the ailing economy.

Australia also hopes to restart international travel with flights to New Zealand in the works.

While New Zealand citizens can now travel to Victoria without quarantining, a reciprocal agreement is still some way off. New Zealand says Australians will remain barred until the entire country has gone at least 28 days without a single COVID-19 case.

Australia’s economy shrank 7% in the three months that ended in June, the most since records began in 1959, while the unemployment rate hit a 22-year high of 7.5% in July.

As well as reopening the border, NSW also said up to 500 people can now gather at outdoor religious gatherings.

Victoria accounts for about 73% of Australia’s total COVID-19 cases of just over 27,800 and 90% of its 907 deaths.