Australian Rules: Victoria lifts crowd limits to 50% capacity at stadiums

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Victoria will allow crowds of up to 50,000 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground when the Australian Football League (AFL) season starts as COVID-19 restrictions ease in the southern state, officials said on Friday.

The half-capacity crowd at the 100,000-seat MCG is the highest permitted threshold in the state since authorities suspended all sport due to the pandemic almost a year ago.

Crowds of up to 30,000 were allowed during the Boxing Day cricket test between Australian and India in December.

"We haven't had footy crowds this big in Victoria since the match to support bushfire relief in February last year, so this announcement provides a big boost for our players and fans," AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan said in a statement.

Melbourne's Docklands stadium will also be able to host 50% capacity (28,961) from March 4, the first match of the AFL's pre-season competition.

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said the government would ease some social restrictions at midnight on Friday, including lifting a requirement to wear masks indoors and raising the cap on gatherings at home and in public areas.

The state finished a snap five-day lockdown last week which was prompted by a COVID-19 outbreak at a quarantine hotel.

The AFL, the top-flight Australian Rules competition, is the country's most popular winter sport.

The traditional season-opening match between champions Richmond Tigers and Carlton Blues draws crowds of well above 50,000 to the MCG in normal years.

The March 18 season-opener between the teams will be the first crowd at an AFL championship match in Melbourne since the season-ending Grand Final in 2019.

The 2020 season was played mainly in the country's eastern states due to a prolonged lockdown in Victoria to combat a second-wave outbreak.

(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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