The NSW government has ordered mandatory face masks in Greater Sydney from Sunday to fight the city's growing COVID-19 outbreak, prompting calls for the distribution of free face masks to keep the public on side.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced face masks would be compulsory in public indoor settings from midnight on Saturday, including on public transport, with a 24-hour grace period before $200 on-the-spot fines would apply from Monday. Children under the age of 12 are exempt, as well as people with certain medical conditions.
Ms Berejiklian also announced a suite of new restrictions for businesses and places of worship in Greater Sydney and the ending of the lockdown of the southern zone of the northern beaches, including Manly.
The risk in the southern zone had "dissipated" and the risk was now higher in western Sydney. But the northern part of the beaches including Avalon will remain in lockdown until January 9.
The developments came as the state recorded seven new locally acquired cases, mostly in western and south-western Sydney, and 12 in hotel quarantine in the 24 hours to 8pm on Friday. There were nearly 32,000 tests reported, with Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant calling for more Sydneysiders to be tested, especially in western Sydney and Wollongong.
Meanwhile, Victoria also recorded 10 new locally acquired cases as genomic testing confirmed a link to the Sydney outbreak.
From midnight throughout Greater Sydney - including the Blue Mountains, Central Coast and Wollongong - it becomes compulsory to wear face masks in shops, supermarkets and shopping centres, public or shared transport, indoor entertainment including cinema, places of worship and hair and beauty salons. Patrons using gaming services and staff in hospitality venues must also wear masks.
Ms Berejiklian said this would not come as a surprise given the government had "already strongly recommended mask-wearing".
"What we want to do is to make sure we're not in a situation where we're restricting people's ability to go about their business," she said. "We want to increase economic activity, not diminish economic activity, and mask-wearing in these settings will ensure we have the confidence to do that."
Dr Chant said there had only been a couple of cases of suspected transmission on public transport but the confined indoor space meant there was a greater chance of direct and longer exposure.
The decision to mandate face masks was broadly welcomed but the government was urged to consider giving away free masks to ensure the enforcement did not harm those who could not afford it or damage goodwill from the general public.
Labor's health spokesman Ryan Park said mandatory masks were the state's "best shot at stopping the spread" but the government should provide more clarity about what types of face coverings were acceptable and use "reasonable discretion" in imposing penalties.
"It's better to hand out a mask than a fine," Mr Park said. "In major public transport centres we hope to see masks available just like we now offer hand sanitiser. We hope businesses get on board too."
Civil Liberties Australia chief executive Bill Rowlings said compulsory masks were justified on health grounds given the pandemic was killing people around the world but there should be "ready availability of publicly paid masks so that not being able to afford it or forgetfulness is not an excuse."
Professor Mary-Louise McLaws from the University of NSW said face masks were an important defence against the virus and the government should be handing them out in railway stations and large bus terminals in the same way free condoms are handed out to prevent the spread of HIV.
"The government should be handing out free masks because it sends a really positive message that they are behind this, that they don't want to fine people, but they want to help people get on board with this really important public health message," Professor McLaws said.
Other restrictions include the closure of night clubs, gym classes reduced to 30 people, places of worship limited to one person per 4 square metres with a maximum of 100 people in each separate area, weddings and funerals are capped at 100 people, outdoor performances and protests to 500 people, and "controlled" outdoor gatherings - that is ticketed and seated events - to 2000 people.
"We don't want to impose a restriction or burden any citizen a day longer than we need to," Ms Berejiklian said. “Once we have confidence that community transmission is where we'd like to see it, we will go back to what we had prior to those restrictions coming into place."
Ms Berejiklian insisted the cricket test match at the Sydney Cricket Ground would go ahead, with NSW Health officials to put the finishing touches on a COVID-safe plan on Saturday. As well as a ban on shouting or singing, cricket fans will have to remain in their section of the stadium when visiting the bathrooms or concession stands, effectively dividing the test match into several smaller events.
Dr Chant said five of the locally acquired cases were from western and south-western Sydney and linked to the Berala cluster. There are now seven in this cluster, including the original patient, a man in his 40s, five of his family members and a co-worker.
Another locally acquired case was a household contact of a previously reported case, a patient transport worker, and had been isolating for their infectious period. Dr Chant said whole genome sequencing showed the infection came from the returned travellers being transported, making it a separate outbreak from the Avalon cluster.
The final locally acquired case is from inner south-western Sydney and the source of infection is under investigation.
New venues listed for COVID-19 exposure included Australian Motor Traders in Haberfield and Officeworks Punchbowl, with anyone who visited those locations on the afternoon of December 29 called to be tested and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.
There are 180 active cases of COVID-19 in NSW, out of a total 4758 since the pandemic started.
Dr Chant said the reason the northern zone was not coming out of lockdown was because of an "abundance of caution" given the higher rate of infection per population. In the week ending December 21, there were 67 cases in the area, which was a rate of 90 per 100,000 people. That compared with a rate of 3 per 100,000 in the southern zone and 0.4 in the rest of Greater Sydney.
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