Australia's Victoria state on Wednesday said the daily rise in infections in its coronavirus hot spot of Melbourne has eased further, putting it on course to relax an extended hard lockdown in the city by the end of the month.
However, a new law that goes into effect from midnight Wednesday will punish anyone caught trying to leave Melbourne for rural areas, where restrictions are less severe, with fines of up to $5,000.
Average cases over the last two weeks in Melbourne, the state's largest city, fell below 50, health authorities said, the benchmark the state set to start easing curbs.
Construction sites, manufacturing plants, warehouses and childcare facilities can reopen, allowing more than 100,000 workers to return to their jobs, if the 14-day rolling average is under 50 cases as of Sept 28.
However, people will still be limited to moving around in a 5-kilometer radius around home and only allowed outside for two hours a day for exercise, with a curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.
"We have to see this through. We absolutely do. Because if we get ourselves in a situation where frustration gets the better of us...then we can open, but we won't stay open for very long," Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters.
The state has set a much tougher target of a 14-day average of five cases for lifting the nightly curfew and reopening more businesses in Melbourne from Oct 26.
Victoria, Australia's second-most populous state, reported eight deaths from COVID-19 in the last 24 hours and 42 new cases, down from highs above 700 in early August. With the drop in cases, the state this week is lifting most restrictions in regional areas outside Melbourne.
From late Wednesday, in regional Victoria, outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people will be permitted, residents of a household will be allowed to visit one other home, and cafes will be able to seat up to 50 people outdoors.
Australia has reported over 26,700 coronavirus cases and 824 deaths, with Victoria accounting for the bulk of both. New South Wales, the country's most populous state, reported 10 new cases on Wednesday. The virus has been effectively eliminated in other states and territories.
Most of the country's cases have been traced back to returned travelers. Daily limits have been imposed on the number of people allowed to return from overseas and arrivals must quarantine in a hotel for 14-days.
However with 25,000 Australians stranded overseas, the national government on Wednesday pressed states to raise caps and open up regional airports to international flights, so a further 2,000 a week could return, raising the weekly total to 6,000.
"I want to make sure that more Australians can return home. There are some heart-wrenching stories," Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack told reporters.
Western Australia state, which has kept its borders tightly shut offered to open up Rottnest island, off Perth, as a quarantine center.© Thomson Reuters 2020.