Australia stepped up enforcement of social distancing rules on Saturday to contain community transmission of the novel coronavirus, implementing fines, closing beaches and threatening stricter measures if people defy pleas to stay at home.
The death toll from the virus rose to 14 after an elderly woman died in an aged-care facility in New South Wales (NSW)state where several residents and employees have tested positive for the virus, according to NSW health officials.
The country’s total number of confirmed coronavirus cases rose by 212 to 3,378 early on Saturday, two-thirds of them in NSW and Victoria states, according to the federal heath ministry.
The infection rate in Australia remains slower than in many other countries, although it is accelerating, especially in the most populous states of NSW and Victoria where more than half of the country’s 25.5-million people live.
As of midnight on Saturday, all returning citizens from abroad will be put into compulsory quarantine in hotels for two weeks at the government’s expense.
Military personnel will help ensure travelers comply with the new rules.
“There’s so many parts of the world where this (coronavirus) is running rampant and I think every returned traveler is a significant risk,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews told a televised briefing.
Two-thirds of the cases in Australia have been traced to contact with people returning from overseas, government health officials said, although community transmission has been growing.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said harsher enforcement of social distancing could be necessary if community transmission began to rise “at a rate that we are not comfortable with”.
Australia’s state and federal governments have sent some mixed messages about social distancing and other containment measures, leading to widespread confusion.
While there is no national order to stay home, entertainment and other mass-gathering venues have been shut and authorities have urged people to cancel house parties and other social gatherings.
In Victoria, police closed beaches on Saturday after hundreds of people flocked to the waterside a day earlier in a repeat of scenes the previous weekend at Sydney’s Bondi beach.
Police said they had attended a backpacker hostel at Bondi on Friday night to prevent a “free sausage sizzle” that had been advertised at the venue, amid concerns that young people in particular are not taking containment measures seriously.
Victoria and South Australia states implemented on-the-spot fines for people and businesses breaking social distancing rules, following similar measures introduced by NSW.
In Queensland state more than one million people headed to polling stations on Saturday for council elections, and were asked to bring their own pens and maintain distances of 1.5 metres (5 feet), the state government said.