SYDNEY (Reuters) – The border between Australia’s two most populous countries will be closed indefinitely as of Tuesday, as authorities attempt to curb an outbreak of the corona virus in the city of Melbourne.
People wearing protective face masks practice social distancing while waiting to go to an Apple Store on July 1, 2020, on the first day of restrictions on Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia. REUTERS / Loren Elliott
The decision announced Monday is the first in 100 years that the Victoria-New South Wales border has been closed. The officials last blocked the movement between the two countries in 1919 during the Spanish flu pandemic.
“It’s the smart call, the right call at this time, given the significant challenges we face in containing this virus,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters in Melbourne.
However, the move is likely to be a blow to Australia’s economic recovery as it enters the first recession in almost three decades.
The number of COVID-19 cases in the Victorian capital Melbourne has increased significantly in the past few days, which led the authorities to enforce strict social distancing orders in 30 suburbs and to completely close off nine public apartment blocks.
The state reported 127 new COVID-19 infections overnight, the largest one-day increase since the pandemic began. Two deaths were also reported, the first at a national level in more than two weeks, a national number of 106.
NSW Prime Minister Gladys Berejiklian said there is no schedule to reopen the border, which is being monitored by the military to prevent illegal crossings from 11:59 p.m. local time on Tuesday.
The state border is highly porous with 55 roads, wilderness parks and rivers. Some companies span both sides, and several workers and school children commute every day.
Lyn McKenzie, who runs a paddle steamer shop along the Murray River from Mildura, a border town of 30,000, is waiting for more details to assess the full impact on her business.
McKenzie lives on the NSW side of the river, the boats take passengers from the Victoria side, and the river itself is classified as part of NSW.
“I may see this as necessary to shut down again, but it’s a bit early for me without knowing the exact details,” McKenzie told Reuters.
Berejiklian said people could apply for day permits to cross the border, but added that there would be a delay of around three days in issuing ID cards.
Paul Armstrong, who runs a gas station in Wodonga, a border town on the Victorian side, said his children live in New South Wales but go to school in Victoria.
“I wonder if they need permits,” said Armstrong. The schools in Victoria are in the second week of the two-week winter vacation. Schools in New South Wales started their two-week school break on Monday.
NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller said the military would conduct 24/7 aerial and other surveillance to enforce the closure. The only other internal border between Victoria and the state of South Australia has been closed since March 22nd due to previous coronavirus measures.
Australia fared better than many other countries in the coronavirus pandemic with just under 8,500 cases, but the Melbourne outbreak triggered alarm bells.
The country reported an average of 109 cases a day in the past week, compared to an average of only 9 cases a day in the first week of June.
Locals in Melbourne are concerned that renewed social distancing measures have not been consistently implemented across the city.
“Without a full ban in Melbourne, I’m not particularly confident that this will be contained,” Jack Bell, a lifeguard who lives in the Victorian suburb of Kensington, told Reuters.
Kensington is one of the 30 suburbs that have reintroduced social distancing measures. The nine public apartment blocks that were the first to be completely closed in Australia are in neighboring North Melbourne and Flemington.
Reporting by Byron Kaye, Swati Pandey, Colin Packham, Renju Jose and Sonali Paul; Edited by Jane Wardell