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Updated: Wednesday Mar 18, 9.30am
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced restrictions on non-essential indoor gatherings will now be limited to no more than 100 people. Non-essential outdoor gatherings will remain at 500 people maximum.
Updated: Sunday Mar 15, 5:20pm
Churches and other cultural groups and organisations will be required to limit their services and indoor meetings to a maximum of 500 people starting from Monday, to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus — under health measures announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday and Sunday afternoons.
Mr Morrison said on Sunday that the ‘social distancing mesaures’ will be written into legislation by the States and Territories during the week to come. The new restrictions will also include a requirement of 14 days of self-isolation, for anyone arriving in Australia from overseas.
The restriction on crowd sizes will apply to any events where people are “in constant periods of contact” — including church and other faith services, concerts, and sporting and cultural events. Mr Morrison added that commonsense should be applied, and that risk is reduced when people are outdoors, such as at outdoor markets. Essential gatherings such as schools, universities and workplaces, will not be affected by the restrictions.
Mr Morrison said the goal of the new measures was “to slow the rate of transmission of Coronavirus in Australia.”
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian in a press conference on Sunday afternoon said the NSW Health Minister has the ability to enforce the crowd size restrictions under the Public Health Act, and would be using the legislation as of Monday to ensure the cancellation of any planned, non-essential gatherings of over 500 people.
Large Churches will Need to ‘Make Arrangements’
The Prime Minister, who attends Sutherland Shire’s Horizon Church, a large Pentecostal church, said on Friday that large churches — including his own — would need to find creative ways to work within the new recommendations.
“Church groups are going to have to make arrangements,” he said, suggesting that multiple services at different times may be one good way for large congregations to meet in smaller numbers.
“I’m pretty sure our pastors will put some common sense arrangements in place,” he said.
Hillsong Church had already issued a notice earlier this month urging church members not to attend services if they have travelled to Coronavirus affected areas or are experiencing potential symptoms.
In America, some large churches such as Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, have closed services to manage virus risk, encouraging their congregations to watch and participate in their church services online.
The nation’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said the limit of 500 people was “a reasonable number” based on the “best available scientific advice”, and the limit will only be lifted once the government’s medical advisors deem it safe.
On Sunday, Mr Morrison said although there won’t be any ‘social distancing police’ to enforce the new rules, it would nonetheless be “committing an offense” if an Australian flew home from Bali then turned up at work the next day. Penalties for infringements of the new social distancing rules, will be a matter for States and Territories to decide.
Mr Morrison urged Australians to stay calm and work together under the new advice, saying, “everyone has a role to play, and one of those is to remain calm and be patient”.
“There is every reason for calm, this is a matter of responding to the situation proportionately…the steps we’re taking today, is about a scaleable response,” he said on Friday.
He said by delaying the start of the new measures until Monday, organisations can have time to respond — rather than having to make snap decisions.
Mr Morrison and Mr Murphy insisted that tougher measures like lockdowns would not be put in place unless there was “much more widespread infection” than currently, saying, “right now there is not that great risk or immediate threat”.
A national cabinet has been formed made up of the prime minister, the chief medical officer, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) and the heads of all states and territories, who will meet weekly to assess the COVID-19 situation as it develops.