There were long queues outside pubs, hairdressers and beauty salons as Australia’s most populous city reopened on Monday, as part of Sydney’s first steps towards living with Covid-19 after more than 100 days of lockdown.
About 5 million Sydneysiders awoke to new freedoms on Monday morning after enduring 106 days of strict stay-at-home orders in a bid to battle the highly contagious Delta strain.
Despite an unseasonably cold and rainy start to the day, thousands defied grey skies and flocked to newly opened cafes, barbers and beauty salons to kick off what some have described as “freedom day”.
Some even queued outside department stores in the minutes before midnight to shop in-store for the first time in nearly four months. Others crowded into pubs to enjoy the day’s first freshly poured beers in a boost to the city’s hospitality and entertainment industry.
Lines sprawled outside inner-city barbers and gyms as people jumped at the opportunity for some well-deserved self-care after spending months at home.
Shoppers flock to a Westfield shopping centre in Bondi Junction, Sydney, after the Covid lockdown lifted. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP
However, only those who are fully vaccinated can partake in the new freedoms under conditions set out by the state of New South Wales’s roadmap to exit lockdown.
The freedoms kicked in after the state reached the milestone of 70% of adults being double-dose vaccinated. NSW leads the nation in vaccination rates. As of Monday, 73.5% of people aged 16 and older in the state were fully inoculated against the virus, while 90.3% have had one dose of a vaccine, according to official data.
Gyms, cafes, restaurants, pubs, pools, shops, hairdressers and beauticians were just some of the venues that welcomed back customers from Monday, though subject to strict customer quotas and mask mandates.
A 5km travel limit was also abandoned and residents were allowed to have 10 people in their home and gather in groups of 30 people outdoors in public.
The state’s leader, premier Dominic Perrottet, speaking to the public from inside an inner-city pub, warned that case numbers and hospitalisations would continue to rise, but that it was important for mental health that businesses reopen.
“There will be challenges that come our way, but we have to open up. And we have to get people back into work,” he said. “We can’t stay closed. We need to learn to live alongside the virus.”
Business owners spoke of both their relief and trepidation to reopen their doors on Monday. Salon owner Moustafa Elrifai said there was so much excitement and demand for haircuts that he opened his salon in Lakemba, in Sydney’s south-west, an hour earlier than normal.
“When I opened my eyes today, I was crying, I swear to God. I hadn’t opened the shop in months. I’ve had to pay my bills and everything – it was tough,” he said. “But today I’m very happy, the reopening is very good.”
But a sense of nervousness and caution lingered in many of the Sydney suburbs disproportionately affected by the virus.
Retail employee Jaylen Gul said the community in south-west Sydney was nervous because it was still “scarred” by their experiences under lockdown.
“A lot of the news as well scares people. I have a lot of friends who caught the virus, and they knew people who caught it, and I think that’s why people are scared,” he said.
“It felt like it’s been such a long time, I wasn’t sure what I should be doing, I’m still confused about the rules, they seem to change every day.
“I’m also nervous about going back into lockdown. We’re all on our toes.”
Amid the joy and sense of uncertainty, Dewey Nipatpokai at Toby’s Coffee Estate in Sydney’s CBD said the day felt “great” and “weird”.
“We got used to only doing takeaway. So it was weird this morning, setting up shop with signs and cleaning tables.”
A cafe in Sydney’s CBD reopens on Monday. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian
Nipatpokai said that, although he was looking forward to going back to normal, he was nervous when he saw people ignoring Covid-safe rules.
“A lot of people just sit down without showing their vaccination passport. They’re impatient. And even though it feels like we are getting better, if we keep acting like that, we fear we might go back down into lockdown again.”
Sydney was plunged into lockdown on 26 June as authorities struggled to battle the Delta strain, which leaked into the community via aircrew and their driver, amid a sluggish vaccine rollout.
On Monday NSW recorded 496 new locally acquired Covid cases and eight deaths. The state’s death toll from the Delta outbreak is 439.
As Sydney reopens, the prospect of reopening international borders is also on the horizon.
Perrottet said: “We can’t live here like a hermit kingdom on the other side of the world – we want returning Australians to come back.
“If New South Wales can play a role in helping other states bring their Australians home too, we want to be part of that, and we’ll work with the other states and territories.”