CANBERRA – There were few bare faces among rush-hour commuters in Australia’s second-largest city on Thursday morning as Melbourne residents were largely complying with a new law making face coverings compulsory.
Melbourne and neighboring semi-rural Mitchell Shire are coronavirus hot spots that have been in lockdown for two weeks. Wearing a mask or face covering in public became mandatory for Melbourne’s 5 million residents from 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday.
“I don’t really enjoy wearing it, I mean, I’m asthmatic as well. So ... I’m not a huge fan of wearing it,” masked commuter Cameron Strange said at busy Southern Cross train station in downtown Melbourne.
“But if it means that we’re saving lives in the community, then we just got to suck it up and do it,” he added.
Café owner Maria Iatrou said wearing masks has been the norm for days, so any change on Thursday was imperceptible.
“Very few people were wearing no mask before this morning,” Iatrou said. “Masks have become a massive thing, there are so many available to buy on the street.”
She said she saw people talking into their jackets because they don’t have a mask with them — “basically making sure that the collar of their jacket is over their mouth.”
Melbourne residents are becoming increasing concerned by the pandemic while most parts of Australia have virtually no new cases and have relaxed restrictions. Victoria state, of which Melbourne is the capital, posted a 24-hour record 484 new cases on Wednesday. A state record five deaths was announced on Thursday.
Iatrou lost an uncle to COVID-19 on Wednesday and an aunt has been infected in the same Melbourne nursing home.
“It’s not a great situation. My uncle’s funeral is on Tuesday and I can’t even go,” Iatrou said. “Only 10 people can go to a funeral.”
Police will fine anyone aged 12 or older 200 Australian dollars ($143) for leaving home without a mask or rough equivalent such as a scarf or bandanna. Employers who discourage staff from wearing face coverings face a potential fine of AU$9,913 ($7,066).
Residents are only allowed to leave home to work, study, buy essentials or exercise. People are not required to wear a face covering while driving alone, but are expected to carry one. Joggers don’t have to wear a mask, nor are people with medical certificates for breathing problems.
Television journalists speaking live are exempt so hearing-impaired viewers can read their lips.
The Victoria state Health Department has published online a guide to making a cloth mask at home.
Still, some residents have said on social media they won’t wear masks and will refuse to pay any fine. But a police spokesman had no reports of non-compliance by early afternoon.
Police will “exercise discretion” on imposing fines for failing to wear a mask for a week while Melbourne makes the adjustment, a government statement said.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews gave no indication of how long mask-wearing might be compulsory.
“As challenging — well, I think it’s pretty simple, frankly — but as challenging as some may find wearing masks, we’ll see the benefits of that in the days and probably the weeks to come,” Andrews said.
“It’s why it may not just be a feature of the second wave, it may be a feature for many, many months to come,” he added.
Mask opponents include high-profile commentator Andrew Bolt, who writes for Melbourne’s most popular newspaper, The Herald Sun.
“How the bullies love it! Forcing all Melburnians to wear face masks — even when walking all alone in the sunshine and fresh air,” Bolt wrote on Wednesday. “Is there no end to this virus hysteria?”
Australian Medical Association President Tony Bartone, a leading advocate for the nation’s doctors, would like to see masks made compulsory in parts of Sydney, Australia’s largest city, where COVID-19 clusters have spread from Melbourne.
“We know that if as much as 95% of the population in those areas wear those masks, we will reduce the spread,” Bartone told Sky News television.
Sydney-based New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the situation in the city did not yet warrant mandatory mask-wearing.
“If you happen to be in a situation where people aren’t respecting social distancing, where you do experience crowding, of course you should wear a mask and that’s been our advice from day one,” Berejiklian said.
Andrews said Victoria's medical advice on masks had changed because the pandemic threat had changed.
“There’ll be some settings where wearing a mask doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Andrews said. “There are many counterintuitive things in this, there’ll be inconsistencies, of course, because it's rapidly changing.”