Victorian shoppers and retailers were given something to celebrate on Sunday after learning most of Melbourne’s COVID-19 restrictions will be eased this week — with nearly all remaining business density limits set to vanish by the end of November.
Speaking in the world’s most locked-down city, Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday announced the state is likely to reach an 80 per cent vaccination rate in the next few days.
With vaccination rates passing that critical threshold nearly a week ahead of schedule, the state has moved to ease many of its remaining restrictions from 6pm, Friday 29 October.
The move will see metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria come under the same rules, allowing free travel between the city and the regions.
Non-essential retailers in the city will be permitted to open their doors to the public for the first time in months, allowing in-store trade for fully vaccinated customers.
Density limits for restaurants, pubs and personal services like hairdressers will be eased, allowing one fully vaccinated customer or patron per four square metres with no occupancy caps.
In a crucial development for the state’s live entertainment sector, indoor venues will also be allowed to swing their doors open.
Indoor venues with seating, like cinemas and theatres, will be permitted to open at 75 per cent capacity or to one person per four square metres. Under both measures, total capacity will be limited to 1,000 people.
Non-seated venues — like the city’s long-suffering music venues — will soon be allowed to open to one person per four square metres, with no total patron cap in place.
The majority of outdoor settings will be free to welcome one patron per two square metres, with a cap of 500 people. However, large-scale outdoor settings, like sporting grounds and zoos, will be allowed to host 5,000 attendees at one person per two square metres.
Music festivals and other major outdoor events are set to return with a capacity of 5,000 people. The Chief Health Officer will be empowered to rubber-stamp any larger events under the state’s Public Events Framework.
Facemasks outdoors are set to become a thing of the past, although the state government says they will remain mandatory indoors and highly encouraged in crowded outdoor settings.
Even greater freedoms are forecast for Wednesday 24 November, when the state is likely to surpass a 90 per cent vaccination rate among those aged 12 and above.
At that point, all venue density limits will be scrapped, masks will be required only in high-risk indoor settings, and all restrictions on indoors and outdoors events will be lifted, so long as operators adhere to COVIDSafe guidelines and open only to fully vaccinated staff and patrons.
The easing of restrictions on Friday will kickstart a “business-led recovery”, said Paul Guerra, chief executive of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“Knowing that from Friday every business in the state can trade viably and that Regional and Metropolitan Victoria will finally be able to reunite means Team Victoria is back,” he said.
“Friday will be a champagne day for business which will then set us up for a spectacular summer.”
The sentiment was echoed by the Australian Retailers Association, whose chief executive, Paul Zahra, said the state’s retailers lost more than $55 million each day they were forced to close their doors.
While many stores could only watch with envy as hospitality venues reopened on Friday, the impending rule changes will give retailers a chance to catch up on pre-Christmas trade.
“Most discretionary retailers make up to two thirds of their annual profits during the all-important Christmas trading period so we need to ensure they can open and trade at their full potential,” Zahra said.
The Australian Retailers Association estimates Victorians are liable to generate upwards of $15 billion of trade in the coming weeks, with many retailers likely to extend their opening hours to meet pent-up demand.
Victorians have also been urged to open their wallets out of a sense of duty, given the ravaging effect of lockdowns on small businesses across the state.
“The Victorian economy is coming from a long way back,” said Tim Piper, the Victorian chief of the Australian Industry Group.
“Some businesses will continue to need support and encouragement from government and, indeed, from consumers.
“But manufacturers can now ramp up, retailers can open, and our community mindset will improve as these restrictions are removed.”
Victoria counted a further 1,461 local cases of COVID-19 overnight, and seven deaths due to the virus.