One of the world’s longest novel coronavirus lockdowns wound down Wednesday morning, allowing roughly 5 million people in the Australian city of Melbourne to leave home anytime they want, eat dinner at a restaurant and drink at bars for the first time in more than three months.
Celebrations ensued. Bookings at low-capacity bars and restaurants quickly filled up for weeks ahead. Businesses popped bottles of champagne as shoppers flocked to stores. Some, including, Kmart, opted to remain open for 24-hours to meet demand, local media reported.
The rollback came after the city reported zero new coronavirus cases on Monday and Tuesday, a dramatic drop from the hundreds logged each day during the outbreak’s peak in late July and early August.
“I’m pretty proud of what we have achieved here,” Sharon Lewin, the director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, told the BBC. “The outcome has been extraordinary — not without its pain, though.”
While the 111-day lockdown helped stop the spread of the virus, it has also taken a devastating toll on the local economy and mental health of residents.
Victoria, the state where Melbourne is located, lost an average of 1,200 jobs a day as most businesses were forced to stay closed, according to Bloomberg News. Demand for mental health services grew by 31 percent in September and October as a lockdown, which began in July and was initially supposed to last only six weeks, dragged on. Meanwhile, alcohol consumption increased, as did domestic violence.
Enduring the prolonged shutdown may have been made even more challenging by the fact that Melbourne had only recently exited a nationwide lockdown that was in place from March to May, giving residents a brief taste of normal life before their daily activities were curtailed again.
Melbourne residents stuck at home this summer watched travel and part of ordinary life resume in much of Europe while the virus surged across the United States. After stringent lockdowns in countries including Italy and Spain, Europe appeared to have largely contained its major outbreaks for a time, and began reopening borders.
This too came at a cost. Europe is now facing a surge of infections.
European leaders have said their goal is to avoid hard lockdowns like those imposed in the spring, which, as in Melbourne, had painful repercussions for economies and communities. Nonetheless, as hospitals warn of increasing strain, both Italy and Spain have tightened restrictions in recent days, while France is reportedly considering a month-long lockdown and Germany is expected to announce new, tougher rules this week.