COVID-free for days, Australian state resumes singing, dancing, religious services


FILE PHOTO: People walk down a city laneway after coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions were eased for the state of Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia, October 28, 2020. REUTERS/Sandra Sanders

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's most populous state said that from Monday it would remove limits on the number of people at weddings, bars and religious services and end a ban on public venue dancing as a run of coronavirus-free days prompted a broad downgrade of social distancing rules.

The changes announced by New South Wales (NSW) on Wednesday come in time for Australia's summer holidays and Christmas celebrations, and mark the biggest lifting of precautionary measures since nationwide lockdowns began in March to slow the spread of COVID-19.

People in the state, where a third of Australia's 25 million population lives, would also be allowed to drink standing up at pubs, while seated outdoor events could host up to 5,000 people.

Outdoor stadiums could operate at full capacity and theatres at 75%, authorities the state capital Sydney said.

NSW has recorded no locally-acquired infection for nearly four weeks.

"We're deeply grateful that since the beginning of the pandemic, the community has taken our advice (and) led the way throughout the nation and we want that to continue," NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters.

"Because of that, we are in the strong position we are (in) today."

Though Australia has reported some new coronavirus cases in returned travellers in quarantine, the country has largely stopped community transmission of the virus with contact tracing, distancing measures and mandatory mask-wearing.

None of the country's eight states and territories had reported a locally-acquired infection in the 24 hours to Wednesday.

In NSW, some distancing measures will stay when the restrictions are lifted from Monday: the headcount limit was removed, but there were still limits of one person per two-square-metres rule at most indoor venues. Dancefloors are still capped at 50 people, while drinking and standing is only allowed outside.

For Sydney wedding planner Belinda Brett, the lifting meant a return to business as usual after nearly a year of disruption.

"This will stop the rest of our postponements," said Brett, who estimates she has had up to 30 clients put off weddings this year.

"Dancing's such a key part of the cultural tradition of a lot of weddings, equally mingling. A lot of clients didn't want to spend the budget on a wedding where you walk in a room and sit at a table all night."

(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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