“I think for a while longer with large intermingling groups inside, we need to play safe which is better than being very sorry afterwards.”
Numerous experts who spoke to The Sun-Herald said despite the government’s announcement the restrictions will be reviewed in four weeks, pubs were likely to be among the last things reopened.
Tony Blakely, a professorial fellow in epidemiology at Melbourne University, said the exact amount of time depended on the government’s strategy. If the government aimed to eliminate the virus, it would need to wait until there had been zero cases for at least three weeks – unlikely to occur until July or August.
If the government planned instead to suppress the virus – also known as “flattening the curve” – it would wait for the figures due in four weeks’ time and then potentially start reopening up society.
“I can’t see pubs being within the first month of it,” Professor Blakely said. “So to answer your question, I can’t see pubs being opened up for at least two months from now.”
Mr Hunt told The Sun-Herald he understood pubs were important for socialising and a “way of life for many Australians”, but stopping a second wave of infections was the priority.
“I understand not having this avenue for social interaction is contributing to this challenging time,” he said. “Restaurants, cafes and pubs will reopen when the health advice and government deem it safe to do so.” Mr Hunt warned social distancing restrictions may still continue after that.
Professor Ben Cowie, an infectious disease specialist at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity at the University of Melbourne, said it was a political decision but he would expect pubs would be among the venues to reopen later rather than sooner.
“It’s one of the places that obviously is economically important and socially important, but has not insignificant potential for people to be in close quarters with lots of other people,” he said.
Mary-Louise McClaws, a professor of epidemiology at the University of NSW, said pubs might be opened in some areas before others. “You could ring-fence areas that haven’t quite got the virus under control and allow others to relax to see how that goes as an experiment,” she said.
Julie Leask, a professor public health at the University of Sydney who is part of the Group of Eight team advising the government on a road-map to recovery, said it was “hard to imagine a return to what we had with pubs for some time”.
“If we keep living with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, then we will need to accept a new kind of normal,” she said.
“It may be that there can be a compromise whereby elements of the pub life can return with a lot of limitations on numbers and distancing. But government would need to also believe it’s feasible to monitor and regulate that setup.
“The virus moves easily between people and a pub may bring large groups of of people together in the one place which is risky.”
NSW Minister for Jobs, Investment and Tourism Stuart Ayres said the work already under way on reviving Sydney’s 24-hour economy “will now take on a strong ‘post COVID-19’ theme”.
“Hospitality and tourism sectors have been some of the hardest hit in our economy,” he said. “Getting their recovery right will be crucial in having a strong, vibrant and dynamic 24-hour economy in Sydney.”
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer for The Sun-Herald, focusing on social affairs.
Michael Koziol is deputy editor of The Sun-Herald, based in Sydney.