While the cities of Sydney and Melbourne in the east have been in strict lockdown with a surge of virus cases, the Western Australia state capital of Perth has largely remained open for business — behind its shut borders. But the relish with which many are enjoying themselves in the west might be tinged with a sense that their COVID-free lifestyle could be coming to an end.
A mask-free nightlife is thriving and huge crowds are turning out for sporting events, including 53,000 rugby fans who crammed into a Perth stadium to watch New Zealand’s All Blacks defeat Australia’s Wallabies on a recent sunny Sunday. “We are in paradise,” said one of those fans, Andrea Williams, who is all for the region continuing to defy the federal government and maintain strict border restrictions that keep it separated from the pandemic raging in large parts of the rest of Australia. States that remain virtually COVID-free, including Western Australia and Queensland, face growing pressure to open their borders, with the national government arguing that internal border restrictions are a drag on the national economy.
Industry groups complain that border closures create critical shortages of labor and supplies, impede trade, inflate construction costs and constrain business opportunities. Damage to companies’ bottom lines also translates to less tax revue for the federal government. Yet because Australia has one of the lowest vaccination rates of any wealthy country, reopening could mean soaring COVID-19 cases in the west and unwelcome restrictions.
At the Perth stadium, bottles of sanitizer were among the few reminders of the delta variant that is overtaking parts of eastern Australia and much of the world. Williams said she’s for the border closures even if that means she can’t be together with her daughters in Sydney and Auckland, New Zealand. “We want this to be over with, of course, but I don’t think we should be opening up any time soon,” she said.
The federal government is impatient to end policies such as tough international border restrictions that have largely kept COVID-19 at bay since March 2020. But its vaccination goal for opening borders — 80% of those 16 and older — remains elusive with 40% fully vaccinated. And since that goal was set in July, infections have shot up, clouding any debate about reopening. In mid-June an unvaccinated limousine driver tested positive for delta after he was infected while transporting a U.S. cargo aircrew from Sydney’s airport. In the months since, more than 30,000 infections have been recorded in New South Wales and Victoria, Australia’s two most populous states, home to half the nation’s population. Daily infections have gone from a handful to more than 1,500 and rising.
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