By Sonali Paul
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia’s second most populous state Victoria on Sunday extended its state of emergency for four more weeks to July 19, as it battles a spike in coronavirus infections with a pick-up in community transmission.
The move came a day after the state announced it would reimpose restrictions capping visitors to households to five people and outdoor gatherings to 10, starting Monday. The limits had been relaxed on June 1 to allow up to 20 people in households and public gatherings.
Victoria reported 19 new infections on Sunday, the fifth day of double digit-rises. The state has now had 1,836 total confirmed cases, or a quarter of the cases in Australia, since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted.
Sunday’s tally in Victoria included an Australia Rules football player, the first in the league to test positive, whose team and coaching staff have been told to isolate.
The surge in Victoria has alarmed other states, which have had only a few, if any, new cases for several weeks. Western Australia, which shut its borders in April, said it would weigh Victoria’s situation in determining when to reopen its borders.
Australian health officials, however, still see no need to require use of face masks, as they would have limited value in a country where absolute numbers of community transmission remain “very low”, deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth said.
Avoiding hugging and kissing was “arguably far more important than, say, wearing masks”, he said.
Victorian state health minister Jenny Mikakos said 210 of the state’s cases are believed tied to community transmission, partly blaming families who have had parties, lunches and dinners attended by people with mild symptoms since restrictions were eased on June 1.
“We obviously have been concerned by the increasing numbers that we have seen in recent days. It is still a very serious situation,” Mikakos said at a televised media conference in Melbourne.
State police said they planned to step up enforcement efforts, especially in suburbs where there have been breakouts and patrolling ski resorts and camper-van parks during the upcoming school holidays.
Individuals caught breaching restrictions face fines of up to A$1,652 ($1,129) for individuals and A$9,913 for businesses.
“This is not the time to be complacent,” Victoria’s police minister, Lisa Neville, told reporters.
The Australian Industry Group, which represents a wide range of employers, said Victoria’s tightening of restrictions again, including extending working from home through to the end of July, would make it harder for businesses to reopen later.
“The economic impact unfortunately will be hard and harsh,” Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox said.
(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by William Mallard and Michael Perry)