Covid 19 coronavirus: Mask-optional Melbourne crowds gather to celebrate NYE despite Covid alert

Hundreds of people packed St Kilda beach and Federation Square in Melbourne last night to celebrate the new year, despite the coronavirus’s return to Victoria.

The scenes formed a stark contrast with the muted celebrations in Sydney, where harbourside locations that are usually brimming with people on New Year’s Eve were practically deserted.

Under Victoria’s COVIDSafe Summer rules, up to 100 people can meet outdoors in a public place, though they must continue to practise social distancing.

Face masks are mandatory indoors and on public transport, and “strongly recommended” outdoors when you cannot keep 1.5 metres apart from others.

The state recorded five new cases of the virus yesterday, having broken its streak of 61 days without any locally acquired infections earlier in the week. There are currently more than 70 close contacts of confirmed cases in isolation.

Acting Premier Jacinta Allan announced Victoria would be closing its border to all of New South Wales from 11.59pm on January 1, sparking a rush of people trying to make it back across the border before the deadline.

“This is not an easy choice. Closing borders, putting in place restrictions, is never an easy choice to make,” Allan said.

“This has been a difficult year, with many difficult decisions to make.

“Unfortunately, the virus doesn’t expire at midnight tonight, and we have to remain vigilance.”

When the clock struck midnight, signalling the end of 2020, most of the revellers at St Kilda beach were in close proximity to one another, with hardly anyone wearing a mask.

The scene at Federation Square was more restrained, but many were maskless.

New Year’s Eve looked very different in Sydney, where the fireworks were spectacular as always, but the throngs of people were missing.

Earlier in the week, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian tightened the state’s coronavirus restrictions, limiting household gatherings across Greater Sydney to a maximum of five people and outdoor gatherings to 30 people.

“We don’t want to create any super-spreading events on New Year’s Eve, which then ruins it for everybody across the state moving forward,” Berejiklian said.

“On New Year’s Eve, we don’t want any crowds on the foreshore around Sydney whatsoever.

“Had circumstances been different, we may have acted differently. But we don’t want New Year’s Eve to be a situation where undetected cases – i.e. people who may be in the very early stages of the disease and not know they’ve got it, not know they’re infectious – unintentionally give it to those closest to them.

“Our preferred advice is that people just stay home.”

Most Sydneysiders followed that advice.

Uniformed police officers could be seen in Circular Quay throughout the evening, following through on the warning from Assistant Commissioner Michael Willing earlier in the day that “large numbers” of cops would appear at licensed venues to check their compliance with the restrictions.

“We’ll be checking licensed premises, we’ll be door-knocking when necessary,” he said.

“We’ll be out and patrolling public areas to ensure people abide by the current health orders.”

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