Hundreds of police officers and army troops are being deployed to enforce the closure of the busy border between Australia’s two most populous states as officials grapple to contain a fresh coronavirus outbreak.
The state line between New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, which is highly porous and stretches hundreds of kilometres, is scheduled to close at 11.59 p.m. on Tuesday for the first time in 100 years.
Underscoring the need for decisive action, Victoria state reported a record number of new COVID-19 infections on Thursday, taking the national tally to a three-month high.
“There will be a significant military and police operation going on to monitor all cross-border activity,” NSW Police Minister David Elliott warned. “There’s serious fines and indeed, a jail sentence, to anyone that wants to push the envelope.”
People caught crossing the border without permission via any of the 55 roads that are heavily used by commuters, schoolchildren and road freight, or several river and wilderness crossings, will face penalties including a fine of A$11,000 ($7,700) and six months imprisonment.
Daily travel permits will be granted to people who live in border towns and cities but with the closure just hours away, the application system was still being developed.
Kevin Mack, the mayor of Albury, a border town on the NSW side, said with an estimated 50,000 car movements across the state line every day “it will be a nightmare for everyone.”
The border closure was announced on Monday in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases in Melbourne, the Victorian capital, which prompted authorities this week to reinstate strict social-distancing orders in more than 30 suburbs and put nine public housing towers into complete lockdown.
Victoria was responsible for 191 of the 199 new cases reported nationally on Tuesday, the biggest one-day rise since early April, excluding last week’s addition of historical data from cruise ships.
Australia has now recorded almost 8,800 cases and 106 deaths, far below many other countries, but the Melbourne outbreak has worried officials. Some Australian media reported on Tuesday that Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews was considering reimposing some broader lockdown measures across the state.
The closure of the border is a blow to Australia’s hopes of cushioning the fall as the country heads into its first recession in nearly three decades, thanks to social distancing restrictions that were imposed in March and have been largely lifted.
For businesses on the border, which last closed during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919, it also poses an immediate logistics headache.
“About a quarter of my staff like me live in NSW, and cross that border every day to come to work,” said Paul Armstrong, who runs a petrol station in Wodonga, a border town on the Victorian side. “I don’t know if they are going to be able to get in.”
The closure also comes during school holidays in both states, a peak travel time for many families.
Ray Bell, owner of the Twofold Bay Motor Inn in Eden, a coastal town on the NSW side of the border, said he received 37 cancellations overnight, including five guests who were forced to leave early to make it back home.
Outside of the border towns, Victoria residents will be able to apply for a permit, but will need to prove a special need for their travel. Freight transporters will be free to cross the border without a permit, but will be subjected to random stops.
Meanwhile, Football Federation Australia (FFA) will be forced to request exemptions to allow Melbourne’s three A-League clubs into New South Wales after their plans to exit Victoria by plane on Monday night were scuppered by fog that closed the airport.