Australia's largest city of Sydney ended an almost four-month COVID-19 lockdown on Monday, easing restrictions after hitting a targeted 70 percent of the eligible population being fully vaccinated.
The state of New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital, has relaxed a number of restrictions for only the fully vaccinated, including allowing visits to other households and access to restaurants, retail stores, cinemas and gyms that open with strict density caps in place.
"I say to everyone today, New South Wales, you have earned it," the state's Premier Dominic Perrottet told reporters.
Under the relaxed restrictions, fully vaccinated people can gather in groups of 10 in homes or 30 outdoors, while groups of 100 can attend weddings and funerals. Those in the Greater Sydney area will also be able to travel beyond their local council boundary or 5 kilometers from their homes for the first time since August.
More curbs will be relaxed around late October, once the state reaches 80 percent of the population aged 16 and over being fully vaccinated. However, the unvaccinated will have to wait until Dec. 1 to enjoy any of the new freedoms.
"The community has done a fantastic job to reach the 70 percent double dose target, but we must keep going. We want to get to as close to 100 percent double vaccination as possible to keep everyone safe," the state's Health Minister Brad Hazzard said in a statement on Sunday.
The move makes New South Wales the first Australian state to exit lockdown without eliminating community transmission of the virus, after an outbreak of the Delta variant in June dashed hopes of continuing the successful elimination strategy Australia has pursued for most of the pandemic since early 2020.
The state has seen a clear downtrend in the number of new cases, reporting 496 new infections and eight deaths in the latest 24-hour period on Monday.
Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city, is expected to follow New South Wales shortly to lift a weekslong lockdown in the state of Victoria once the 70 percent vaccination threshold is reached, despite seeing a record 1,965 daily cases on Saturday, the highest daily figure in Australia since the pandemic began.
As vaccination levels increase, Australia is looking toward transitioning to living with the virus. The government plans to lift restrictions in stages on Australian travelers returning home on condition that the country hits inoculation rates of 70 and 80 percent and eventually on all international travelers.
Several states and territories with fewer or no infections, however, are reluctant to follow the national plan, vowing to keep their borders closed until they reach an indeterminate percentage above 80 percent.
Officials in the states of West Australia and Queensland, which have so far managed to avoid any major outbreaks of the Delta variant, will be watching New South Wales and Victoria closely as they chart the path toward living with the virus.
"I don't want to give our position away," West Australia Premier Mark McGowan said last Thursday as he doubled down on border closures, local media Sky News reported.
But Perrottet said that Monday was just a taste of the freedoms to come as New South Wales leads the nation out of the pandemic.
"We need to learn to live alongside the virus," he stressed, signaling that lockdowns will soon become a thing of the past as the state inches closer to the 80 percent inoculation target.
Australia's number of COVID-19 infections and deaths remain relatively low, with around 127,500 cases and 1,440 deaths since the pandemic began. Some 62 percent of the population aged 16 and over has been fully vaccinated, while 82.2 percent have received the first dose.