In Melbourne, public life has essentially come to a halt. Schools are shuttered. Roads are empty. The only shops open are gas stations, supermarkets and drugstores.
People who do not work in an essential industry are allowed to leave their houses only for two hours’ exercise a day, or to buy food, care for others or seek medical attention. Soldiers go door to door checking that infected people are in isolation. Police ask cyclists for identification to ensure they are not breaching a rule allowing exercise only within five kilometers (3.1 miles) of their homes.
Federal officials, managing their first recession in 29 years, have pleaded with Andrews — whose powers are similar to U.S. governors — to loosen rules that are dragging down Australia’s economy. The number of people in Melbourne receiving government unemployment benefits has risen 7.2 percent to about 410,000 since June 26, and spending by individuals in Victoria is down 30 percent, according to the federal Treasury Department.
Derided by his critics as one of Australia’s least-charismatic political leaders, with no professional experience outside the center-left Labor Party or state government, Andrews argues that the pandemic needs to be aggressively suppressed now to avoid future lockdowns caused by new virus waves that could inflict worse damage.
“We have to get the numbers low and keep them low,” he said last week. “That’s exactly what we will achieve by everyone working together.”
By stoically explaining his position and reasoning every day in news conferences that have become a surprise television ratings hit, Andrews seems to have convinced Melburnians that the tough measures are necessary.
An opinion poll this month by Roy Morgan Research reported that 62 percent of voters in the city did not want the curfew ended right away and that more than two-thirds of voters across the state approve of Andrews’s performance.
But health experts — even those who want the novel coronavirus eliminated from Australia, something no large country has achieved — worry that Andrews may have gone too far to control a disease that has killed a similar number of people in Melbourne as the District of Columbia, which has one-eighth of the Australian city’s population and a death toll of 616.
“I do find that strange as an epidemiologist that we have to go to such extremes when the case numbers are manageable,” Catherine Bennett, an infectious-diseases expert at Deakin University, said in an interview.
Last week, Andrews’s health department recorded 42 new coronavirus cases and no deaths. Most restrictions were set to be lifted outside Melbourne following a drop in cases.
Throughout the lockdown, Andrews’s government has responded to isolated acts of defiance with displays of force. Public demonstrations, and encouraging others to participate in them, have been declared illegal. Some workers have arranged clandestine meetings with colleagues in supermarkets.
On Sept. 2, state police officers arrested and handcuffed a pregnant woman wearing pink pajamas in front of her child and husband for trying to organize an anti-lockdown protest through Facebook in the regional city of Ballarat.
Then last week, activists, including some virus conspiracy theorists, used an encrypted messaging app to arrange a protest in Melbourne’s central food market, where they could conceivably pretend to be shopping.
When news of the protest was posted on social media an hour in advance, police swamped the area with officers on horseback and others wielding batons and thick plastic shields.
As protesters yelled “Freedom!” the police arrested 74 people and issued the equivalent of $200,000 in fines. “Protesting is stupid, protesting is selfish, and protesting is dangerous,” Andrews said afterward.
“Are we in the hands of a madman?” Chris Lucas, one of the city’s prominent restaurateurs, responded in an interview.
That evening, the rules were relaxed a little in response to an earlier decision. The curfew now begins an hour later, at 9 p.m. People who live alone are allowed to designate another individual for brief social visits.
But until Oct. 26, most children will not be allowed to return to school, nor will adults be able to move freely. To meet that target, there will have to be fewer than five cases on average every day for two weeks, and fewer than five cases a day that cannot be traced to an existing outbreak over two weeks, under the Victorian government’s strategy to defeat the virus.
Nick Baker, a 43-year-old Melbourne resident and aviation-
industry worker, said he supports the lockdown but is struggling with the lack of physical contact with friends or family, apart from his wife, Janis.
The couple planned a vacation to Las Vegas last month for her 40th birthday. Australia has banned most foreign travel, and the Bakers’ backup plan, a trip along Victoria’s scenic Great Ocean Road, is now illegal.
Instead, Baker bought his wife a cake baked to look like the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign at the southern end of the Las Vegas Strip.
“This morning it hit me that the day Stage 4 [restrictions] were meant to end is actually the beginning of another six weeks until we can have friends visit or get out of our 5-kilometer radius,” he said in an email last week.
“The road map out doesn’t give a lot of hope. I think it’s necessary, but that doesn’t make it any easier. We just want to go for a drive to the beach.”
This story has been updated to describe Daniel Andrews’s powers as similar to a U.S. governor.