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Masks should go, experts say, as ‘ring of steel’ is abolished

In August, just prior to Victoria recording a peak of 725 new daily coronavirus infections, Mr Andrews announced a “state of disaster”. On Sunday, the government dropped that designation, although the state of emergency established in March was retained.

Under Sunday’s new rules, visitor limits remain at two people, plus dependents, but visitors do not have to be from the same household and can visit at different times.

Restaurants, pubs, and cafes will be able to host up to 40 customers indoors and 70 outdoors. Gyms and indoor sports facilities can open with up to 20 visitors, subject to density limits, and indoor sport for children can recommence.

Indoor religious ceremonies, including funerals, will also be increased to a 20-person limit, and 50 will be allowed outside. There was no change for weddings, which can still only have 10 people. Hotels and motels will also reopen on Monday.

Two leading epidemiologists said the government should consider easing mask laws. Wearing masks remains mandatory when people are not at home and not eating or drinking.

“When you are outdoors and in free-moving air and able to keep your distance from other people, the risk is as close to zero as it can possibly be,” Deakin University Professor Catherine Bennett said.

Melbourne University epidemiologist Tony Blakely also said the government needed to consider relaxing mask rules outdoors, unless people were in a crowded outdoor area, on public transport, or in busy indoor environments. “But whether that happens today or when the next step occurs on November 22, I’m not too fussed.”

Premier Andrews says wearing masks outdoors will remain mandatory for the time being.

Premier Andrews says wearing masks outdoors will remain mandatory for the time being.Credit:Chris Hopkins

A third epidemiologist, Professor Michael Toole from the Burnet Institute, said masks were “a proven effective measure that was cheap and easily available”. Like Mr Andrews, he said they should be retained for the long haul.

State Opposition leader Michael O’Brien said the government needed to begin applying “common sense” rules, particularly around masks. “We want the rules to reflect what gives us the best public health outcomes,” Mr O’Brien said.

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton defended keeping masks in place across the state. “They are useful because they reduce transmissions from anyone who might have an infection. And we don’t know the actual case load out there.”

Mr Andrews also said masks would remain. “Whether it’s wearing a mask, washing hands, coughing into the crook of our arm, following the rules, as difficult and frustrating as they may be, that is what has got us to be able to be open,” he said.

In a statement on Sunday, the Police Association welcomed the dropping of the “ring of steel” around Melbourne.

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“This will come as a relief to our members who, for a large part of this year, have been placed in the unenviable position of upholding restrictions which have impacted the lives of so many Victorians,” the statement said. “Our members look forward to moving off checkpoints and back into police stations and communities.”

There are just two cases in the state with an unknown source and only two people in Victoria are in hospital with COVID-19; neither is in intensive care. There were 16,865 tests completed on Saturday.

Professor Sutton said it was “possible” the state was at the point of eradication of the virus.

“I think we shouldn’t work on that assumption because that would change the way we behave and the way we’re going about testing,” he said.

Mr Andrews said he wanted to note “how impressive it is that Victorians have built something that is not only unique in our country but is of international significance”.

“To have gone from more than 700 cases a day to nine days of zero cases in a row is a particularly impressive thing and something every single Victorian should be proud of,” he said.

Business groups largely welcomed the latest easing of restrictions. The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry called for more clarity on when office workers might return to Melbourne’s city centre.

Australian Industry Group Victorian head Tim Piper said the removal of workforce restrictions for manufacturers was positive and called for other states to open their borders to Victorians. “The easing is most relevant for abattoirs and meat processing plants, poultry and seafood processing,” he said. “Other states should now reopen their borders to Victoria as the state has achieved nine consecutive days of zero cases in what is a remarkable turnaround.”

Melbourne University’s Professor Blakely also said that Victoria now needed to question whether to retain bans on travellers coming into the state from some Asian countries that had tackled the virus successfully to enter.

This included countries such as South Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

The Burnet Institute’s Professor Toole said it was time to open up Victoria to both New Zealand and some other Pacific islands, such as Vanuatu.

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