Businesses in Melbourne are staring down the barrel of tougher restrictions, after Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews warned the state may need to elevate its response to a second wave of COVID-19 infections in the state.
Rumors are abounds throughout the media that Victorian officials will move to ‘Stage 4’ restrictions to tackle the outbreak, as Victoria recorded more than 500 new cases over the last 48 hours.
Andrews has been pushed on the prospect of a further lockdown since Monday and has repeatedly signalled that all options remain on the table.
Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said on Wednesday he wasn’t sure whether tougher lockdowns would be required to curb Victoria’s outbreak.
“I don’t know how likely it is to step up, or the opportunities to step down,” he said.
“It really is in everyone’s hands, and it’s hard to say how things will go … this is a wave that’s different to the first wave.”
On Tuesday, he said the government was not ruling anything out.
“We can’t rule anything out if there aren’t sufficient mechanisms to drive down transmission,” he said.
“We would do the minimum required, because we know how much of an imposition it is on businesses and people’s lives, but if it’s required to reduce transmission, then it has to be in play.”
It will still be days before authorities can properly assess the impact of the return to Stage 3 restrictions across metropolitan Melbourne though, Sutton said.
Australia already has a model for what tougher lockdown measures might look like; in March north-west Tasmania shut down the vast majority of businesses, retailers included, in a bid to stem a fast moving outbreak.
Similarly, in New Zealand, all businesses were closed during the country’s strictest coronavirus restrictions, except for supermarkets, pharmacies, clinics and organisations deemed to be “lifeline utilities”, according to the ABC.
However, Australia has thusfar not gone beyond Stage 3 restrictions, which force services businesses to close while allowing retailers to remain open and food businesses to provide takeaway and delivery services.
Sutton said on Wednesday no decisions have been made about whether additional businesses will need to close in Victoria.
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“It would absolutely depend on the epidemiology, there’s nothing guaranteed about what closes or what stays open,” he said.
Face masks could become mandatory in Stage 4
As for whether face masks should be mandatory, Sutton said it remains a “risk” not to wear one.
“Mandatory mask wearing shouldn’t be off the table,” he said.
“It’s a risk not to have them, especially with the level of transmission happening in Melbourne.”
Masks have also not been compulsory in Australia, or imposed as a condition of entry to retail businesses like they have been in other countries, including the United States.
Last weekend Victoria updated its public health advice to say masks are now recommended in cases where social distancing cannot be maintained, but ‘Stage 4’ restrictions would likely see masks become mandatory in some fashion.
This means businesses in Melbourne may be required to not only ensure staff are wearing masks, but that patrons entering their stores are as well.
This is easier said than done. While many US-based businesses have a standing in-store mask policy, that has not stopped droves of disgruntled consumers from causing havoc over the conditions.
Videos uploaded to social media in recent weeks show upset customers forcing their way into stores without masks, disrupting queues of customers, and in some cases even throwing in-store stock from racks to the ground.
Local businesses are already having difficulty dealing with belligerent customers; a KFC customer was taken away by police in Victoria yesterday after trying to eat their food in-store, and refusing to leave when asked.
In New South Wales, authorities appear to be taking the opposite track to Victoria, playing down fears that another round of blanket restrictions may need to be imposed across Sydney, following several infection clusters at pubs.
Earlier this week NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced additional restrictions on pubs, but later moved to quell speculation the state would be imposing wider-reaching restrictions in the short term.
“We can’t shut down every time we have a cluster of cases,” Berejiklian told A Current Affair.
“That is not a good way for us to manage the pandemic.”