PERTH – It can seem like Australia’s west coast has almost entirely avoided COVID-19.
A mask-free nightlife is thriving and huge crowds are turning out for sporting events, including 53,000 rugby fans who crammed into a Perth stadium to watch New Zealand’s All Blacks defeat Australia’s Wallabies on a recent sunny Sunday.
“We are in paradise,” said one of those fans, Andrea Williams, who is all for the region continuing to defy the federal government and maintain strict border restrictions that keep it separated from the pandemic raging in large parts of the rest of Australia.
While the cities of Sydney and Melbourne in the east have been in strict lockdown with a surge of virus cases, the Western Australia state capital of Perth has largely remained open for business — behind its shut borders.
But the relish with which many are enjoying themselves in the west might be tinged with a sense that their COVID-free lifestyle could be coming to an end.
States that remain virtually COVID-free, including Western Australia and Queensland, face growing pressure to open their borders, with the national government arguing that internal border restrictions are a drag on the national economy.
Industry groups complain that border closures create critical shortages of labor and supplies, impede trade, inflate construction costs and constrain business opportunities. Damage to companies’ bottom lines also translates to less tax revue for the federal government.
Yet because Australia has one of the lowest vaccination rates of any wealthy country, reopening could mean soaring COVID-19 cases in the west and unwelcome restrictions.
At the Perth stadium, bottles of sanitizer were among the few reminders of the delta variant that is overtaking parts of eastern Australia and much of the world.
Williams said she's for the border closures even if that means she can’t be together with her daughters in Sydney and Auckland, New Zealand.
“We want this to be over with, of course, but I don’t think we should be opening up any time soon,” she said.
The federal government is impatient to end policies such as tough international border restrictions that have largely kept COVID-19 at bay since March 2020. But its vaccination goal for opening borders — 80% of those 16 and older — remains elusive with 40% fully vaccinated.
And since that goal was set in July, infections have shot up, clouding any debate about reopening.
In mid-June an unvaccinated limousine driver tested positive for delta after he was infected while transporting a U.S. cargo aircrew from Sydney's airport. In the months since, more than 30,000 infections have been recorded in New South Wales and Victoria, Australia's two most populous states, home to half the nation's population. Daily infections have gone from a handful to more than 1,500 and rising.
Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan has said that his state will likely be months behind the rest of the country in opening its borders.
“Why are they on this mission to bring COVID into Western Australia, to infect our public?” McGowan asked, referring to the federal government.
“By knowingly letting the virus in, it would mean we’d have hundreds of people die, have to wind back our local freedoms, introduce restrictions and shut down large parts of our economy,” he added.
The federal government has responded with frustration, saying it is carrying much of the financial burden of supporting businesses in sectors such as tourism that are in danger of failing without interstate travelers.
“Every other country around the world is learning to live with COVID, and it seems that in Queensland and Western Australia there’s a denial of the reality that we need to do that,” Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said.
Many of those out west say they have been doing just fine with things the way they are.
Sergio Guazzelli, a west coast coffee shop owner, has only endured three state-ordered lockdowns, for a total 12 days. By comparison, Melbourne has had more than 220 days of lockdown.
Guazzelli said his business in the port city of Fremantle on Perth's fringe is “flat out” as locals relish their freedom.
"People are heading out more because of what’s happening in Sydney and Melbourne. They want to enjoy life because we don’t know what’s ahead,” Guazzelli said.
While there's some frustration in Western Australia over hassles from the border restrictions such as not being able to see family elsewhere, the premier’s pandemic response has earned him record approval ratings and a celebrity status within his state that is extraordinary in Australian politics.
Some supporters have even gotten tattoos of the image of McGowan. His appeal is particularly strong with the young, many of whom are enjoying a thriving bar and nightclub scene.
“You have to feel sorry for young people in other parts of the world who have missed out on the nightlife, so I feel lucky to have been able to live my life,” said Sean McDonald, a 23-year-old college student.
A lack of concern about the virus in Western Australia is reflected in the lowest vaccination rate in the country, at 36.3%, followed by Queensland at 36.4%. The national vaccination rate is 40.4%.
Western Australia and Queensland blame their late rollouts on the federal government’s failure to provide more vaccines earlier.
The federal government has warned that while the country's High Court last year rejected a billionaire’s challenge to the legality of Western Australia’s border restrictions, the state might not be so lucky against a second challenge now that vaccines are available.
But the federal government hasn’t mentioned the option of passing a law that overrules Western Australia’s and other states’ border controls.
Constitutional lawyer George Williams suspects the government doesn’t want to take that step because it faces re-election by May and needs votes in Western Australia.
Perth doctor Omar Khorshid, national president of the Australian Medical Association, said keeping the state border closed is popular among many of his patients. But they should understand it's not possible to keep delta out, he said.
“It is coming to Western Australia like it is to the rest of this country, and it’s critical that we get ourselves ready,” he said.
McGuirk reported from Canberra, Australia.