It resembled a postcard from a world without coronavirus. In Darwin, crowds gathered and mingled as the sun set on a well-known market over the weekend.
But is the Northern Territory’s picturesque COVID-safe bubble about to burst?
Sydney residents can now travel freely to the NT and regional Victorians will be able to follow suit in coming weeks.
With the Territory reopening to areas once ravaged by coronavirus, a doctors’ group is warning there should be a rethink of COVID-19 safety guidelines.
The Australian Medical Association NT says complacency could jeopardise the freedoms Territorians have come to enjoy, with some hospitality venues posing particular risks.
“In places like New South Wales, you have to register at restaurants and there’s a recommendation to wear masks, and it’s certainly compulsory to wear masks in Melbourne,” branch president Robert Parker said.
“But in the Territory, I understand, it’s much more of an informal situation where the population is encouraged to do stuff, but there’s no compulsory action as such.
“You’d think it would be a sensible thing to have compulsory registration when you go to restaurants.”
A legal requirement for people to physically distance while outdoors in the Northern Territory was dropped months ago, and health groups have only recently begun advising people to wear masks if they cannot keep their distance.
People who arrive from non-hotspot areas face a brief questionnaire but are not temperature-tested at airports before moving through the community.
“I think we’ve been very lucky in the Territory,” Dr Parker said.
“I think there’s a certain sense of complacency because we haven’t had the direct experience of it, and I think that can be very problematic.”
Hospitality sector will await CHO advice
Some NT venues, such as nightclubs, are already required to record their patrons’ contact details.
But the vast majority lodge and follow more relaxed safety plans, provide hand sanitiser and display signage to promote physical distancing.
NT Police said no breaches had been issued for non-compliance with those measures.
Alex Bruce, who heads up industry group Hospitality NT, has rejected the call for mandatory registration.
He said the broad sources of outbreaks in southern states suggested a move to target an entire sector would be misguided.
“All we’re saying is this is a lot broader than just daytime cafe and restaurant trade,” he said.
“We are standing, willing and able to positively do our bit, but we don’t support calls from advocacy groups targeting specific sections.
“We’ll be guided by the Chief Health Officer and his team.”
Mr Bruce maintained current systems would allow the sector to trace and help contain any potential outbreak.
Overall rates of coronavirus testing — one of the key tools to detect an outbreak in the early stages — hover just below 20,000 per 100,000 people in the NT.
An NT Health Spokesperson said daily testing rates in the Top End had more than doubled in September compared to June, but they remained stable in Central Australia.
Almost 2,000 tests were conducted in Darwin, including in its quarantine facility, over the week to October 6.
Just shy of 300 tests were conducted in Alice Springs.
Enter the ‘COVID coordinators’
A new compliance system is likely to be rolled out to the hospitality sector in the coming months.
Health authorities have spoken about establishing “COVID coordinators” — staff members who will stay up to date with health advice and monitor compliance in venues.
A training package is currently being reviewed by the Department of Health, Mr Bruce said.
“Health authorities and politicians in the space have made clear that if the worst-case scenario did occur and unfortunately there were cases that did enter the Northern Territory, they’d be looking to localise, clamp down and potentially restrict different activities and behaviours rather than just send us all back to the dole queue,” he said.
“In that environment, having the capacity for all of our venues to have COVID coordinators — if the rules do need to tighten up or flex back down — it makes sense for us.”
In the NT, 140 health staff have been trained to conduct contact tracing.