Australia’s second-largest city, Melbourne, is grappling with a spiraling coronavirus outbreak in a country that once thought it had the pandemic beat.
It has now imposed some of the toughest restrictions in the world, offering a preview of what many urban dwellers elsewhere could confront in coming weeks and months.
Melbourne, and the rest of Australia, was once a shining victor, believing the virus to have been vanquished as of late June. But assumptions made about hotel guests turned out to be the weak link.
A breakdown in the quarantine program for hotels, which was contracted out to private security, meant that returning travelers passed the virus to hotel security guards, who carried the contagion into their neighborhoods.
The spread continued even after Melbourne started a so-called Stage 3 lockdown in early July — until recently, the highest level of restrictions — with no large gatherings and most people working from home. Officials grew increasingly angry as they discovered that the perception of a problem solved had produced complacency.
As officials cast about for ways to break the chain of infections, the city has developed a confounding matrix of hefty fines for disobedience to the lockdown, with minor exceptions for everything from romantic partners to home building, and endless versions of the question: So, wait, can I ____?
Restaurant owners are wondering about food delivery after an 8 p.m. curfew began on Sunday night. Teenagers are asking if their boyfriends and girlfriends count as essential partners. Can animal shelter volunteers walk dogs at night? Are house cleaners essential for those struggling with their mental health? Can people who have been tested exercise outside?
“This is such a weird, scary, bizarro time that we live in,” said Tessethia Von Tessle Roberts, 25, a student in Melbourne who admits to having hit a breaking point a few days ago, when her washing machine broke.
“Our health care workers are hustling around the clock to keep us alive,” she said. “Our politicians are as scared as we are, but they have to pretend like they have a better idea than we do of what’s going to happen next.”
Pandemic lockdowns, never easy, are getting ever more confusing and contentious as they evolve in the face of second and third rounds of outbreaks that have exhausted both officials and residents. With success against the virus as fleeting as the breeze, the new waves of restrictions feel to many like a bombing raid that just won’t end.
For some places, risk calculations can change overnight. In Hong Kong, officials banned daytime dining in restaurants last month, only to reverse themselves a day later after an outcry. Schools in some cities are opening and closing like screen doors in summer.
In many areas where the virus has retreated and then resurged, the future looks like a long, complicated haul. Leaders are reaching for their own metaphors to try to explain it.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has compared his opening and shutting of businesses to a “dimmer switch.” Dan Andrews, the premier in Victoria, the state of which Melbourne is the capital, has repeatedly referred to “pilot light mode” for industries like construction and meatpacking, which have been ordered to temporarily reduce their work forces.
Whatever the metaphor, the situation is bleak.
In Melbourne, a city of five million that is considered a capital of food and culture, traffic data showed people driving more in July than they had during the first Stage 3 lockdown, in March and April. Even worse, almost nine out of 10 people with Covid-19 had not been tested or isolated when they first felt sick, Mr. Andrews, the state’s top leader, said in late July. And 53 percent had not quarantined while waiting for their test results.
“That means people have felt unwell and just gone about their business,” Mr. Andrews said.
He made face masks mandatory the next day, on July 22.
Still, infections have continued to rise. They peaked at 753 new cases on July 30, and have hovered around 500 a day ever since, with the death toll in Victoria now standing at 147, after 11 deaths were recorded on Monday.
Those figures have paved the way for a Stage 4 lockdown — what officials are calling a “shock and awe” attack on the virus — that will last at least six weeks.
Overwhelming force, with precision, seems to be the goal. The chief modelers of the pandemic response in Australia have found that the virus can be suppressed only if more than 70 percent of the population abides by social distancing guidelines and other public health rules.
Mr. Andrews said the new restrictions would take 250,000 more people out of their routines, in the hopes of reaching the necessary threshold.
So retail stores will be closed. Schools will return to at-home instruction. Restaurants will be takeout or delivery only. Child-care centers will be available only for permitted workers.
Those restrictions are already well understood. The rules requiring more explanation are tied to the curfew and industries that have to cut back.
Large-scale construction projects of more than three stories, for example, will have to reduce their on-site work force by 75 percent, and workers will not be able to work at more than one location. Small-scale construction cannot have more than five workers.
All of which sounds clear. But does a bathroom renovation, for example, amount to home building in an apartment with one bathroom? And what about fixing things that break, like Ms. Von Tessle Roberts’s washing machine?
Some businesses, like cleaning services, are already emailing customers to say they think they can do some work, for people who pay through welfare or who need help for mental health reasons. But, like many others, they are still seeking official clarification.
Mr. Andrews, a Labor politician sometimes described as awkward and paternal, has become the dad everyone needs answers from. He now oversees, under the lockdown rules, what may be the country’s most intrusive bureaucracy since its days as a penal colony.
On Tuesday, he answered questions from reporters about dog-walking (allowed after curfew, sort of, only near home) and other subjects of great confusion at a news conference in Melbourne.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 3, 2020
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
- Employers have to provide a safe workplace with policies that protect everyone equally. And if one of your co-workers tests positive for the coronavirus, the C.D.C. has said that employers should tell their employees — without giving you the sick employee’s name — that they may have been exposed to the virus.
Should I refinance my mortgage?
- It could be a good idea, because mortgage rates have never been lower. Refinancing requests have pushed mortgage applications to some of the highest levels since 2008, so be prepared to get in line. But defaults are also up, so if you’re thinking about buying a home, be aware that some lenders have tightened their standards.
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
Is the coronavirus airborne?
- The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
Thanking those who complied with the new rules and scolding those who did not, he announced that no one in self-isolation would now be allowed to exercise outdoors. A door-knocking campaign to check in on 3,000 people who had Covid-19 found that 800 of them were not at home.
All 800 have been referred to the Victoria police for investigation. The fine for violators going forward, he said, will be 4,957 Australian dollars, $3,532.
Working, even legally, will also become trickier. Other than, say, hospital workers with formal identification, everyone traveling for a job deemed essential during the lockdown must carry a formal document — a work permit signed by the employer and employee.
For Cara Devine, who works at a wine store that closes at 8 p.m., that means carrying a government form with her everywhere, and hoping that the police recognize her task as essential when she heads home after the curfew. But she also worried about the Uber drivers who take her back and forth.
“Even before the newest restrictions, I’ve had two Uber drivers being really late picking up from the shop because they got stopped by the police, taking about an hour out of their work time,” she said.
The police are already confronting opposition. On at least four occasions in the last week, they reported having to smash the windows of cars and pull people out after they refused to provide a name and address at a police checkpoint. The Victoria police commissioner, Shane Patton, said a 38-year-old woman had also been charged with assault after attacking a police officer who had stopped her for not wearing a face mask.
Some criminologists are questioning whether the harsher enforcement will help. Mostly, though, Melburnians are just trying to endure.
Walking to get groceries, Peter Barnes, 56, said he welcomed the stricter rules, though he admitted his city was starting to feel like George Orwell’s “1984,” with the heavy hand of the state around every corner.
Those focused solely on the economics, he said, should remember the obvious: “You can’t hire a corpse. Very bad employment prospects for people who are dead.”
By Monday night, the city seemed to be in listening mode. The streets were emptying out, silent in hibernation.
“It’s like a Sunday in the 1950s,” said Mark Rubbo, the owner of Readings, Melbourne’s largest independent bookstore. He also noted that people were stocking up again on books through online orders, with a memoir called “The Happiest Man on Earth,” about a Holocaust survivor, becoming a runaway hit.
Ms. Von Tessle Roberts has found another solution, perhaps just as likely to grow in popularity: Stand on your front porch and scream. That’s the name she has given to an event she posted on Facebook, set for Friday at 7 p.m. By Tuesday afternoon, 70,000 people had expressed an interest in joining her collective shout in anguish.
“Yelling is great,” she said. “It’s less dehydrating than crying.”
Besha Rodell and Yan Zhuang contributed reporting from Melbourne, and Livia Albeck-Ripka from Cairns, Australia.