Beaches closed across Sydney after thousands ignore social distancing rules

Brooke Rolfe
News Reporter

Numerous Sydney beaches, including iconic Bondi Beach, have been shut until further notice after thousands ignored social distancing rules introduced to avoid the spread of coronavirus.

Authorities delivered a confusing message about the closure of Bondi Beach following widespread outrage at beachgoers congregating at the iconic tourist hot spot on Friday.

After another surge of people on Saturday morning, the decision was made to temporarily close Bondi Beach until further notice, as well as Tamarama and Bronte beaches.

Later on the same day, Randwick Council announced Coogee, Clovellly and Maroubra beaches would all be closed on Sunday.

Gordon’s Bay, Malabar, Little Bay, Congwong, Frenchman’s Bay and Yarra Bay will also be closed for the foreseeable future.

A ranger tapes off an entrance to Bondi Beach following its closure to the public. Source: AAP

“Given the sunny weather forecast of 27 degrees for Sunday, it is highly likely that beach numbers will exceed the 500-person cap announced by the NSW Government today,” Randwick Mayor Danny Said said, noting that locals should look for updates on their social media.

Remarkable images of an unrecognisable Bondi beach taped off without a single person on the sand have since begun to emerge.

Emergency Services Minister David Elliott announced at a press conference on Saturday that moving forward beachgoers would be escorted from Bondi if lifesavers found there to be more than 500 people there at a time.

Bondi Beach closed to the public on Saturday afternoon. Source: Supplied

While it was initially claimed the Eastern Suburbs beach was to be closed indefinitely, Mr Elliott said that unless numbers exceeded the set limit, it would be business as usual and lifesavers would continue their regular patrolling and making sure people are keeping the mandatory 1.5metres apart.

Mr Elliott slammed crowds captured lapping up the warm weather on Friday and Saturday morning, saying it was “the most irresponsible behaviour of individuals that we’ve seen so far”.

“We can not have an active area of community of activity where more than 500 people are gathered,” he told reporters at Bondi Beach.

“If the community does not comply with the regulations and the health warnings, this is going to become the new norm.”

How do the restrictions actually work?

Surf Life Savers across NSW, including at Bondi Beach, will be permitted to use their discretion when deciding when and who to escort away from the beach.

The restrictions are in place for all of NSW’s beaches.

Beachgoers are seen at Bondi despite the threat of coronavirus. Source: AAP
Bondi Beach unrecognisable on Saturday afternoon. Source: Supplied

If there is fewer than 500 people, crews can still ask people to leave if they detect their personal health and safety to be at risk.

If there are more than 500 people, Surf Life Saving officers will withdraw their patrolling and approach beachgoers to ask them to move on.

If people do not comply, local police will be contacted to assist clearing the crowds.

“Lifesaving will be looking to issue a warning inviting people to leave the beach, so police will work with life savers and others to invite people to be part of this,” NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Karen Webb said.

How long will the restrictions last?

Given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, authorities said changes to regulations would be made according with what they sought necessary.

“This is an evolving situation to our surf life savers,” Surf Live Saving Chief Executive Officer Steven Pearce said.

“From today (Saturday), if the numbers exceed 500 on the beach, life saving patrols will withdraw from the beach.”

He said surveillance would still remain active through the organisation’s support operations, in the form of patrols and jet skis.

“If we see that the numbers are exceeded, then we will advise local government and then NSW Police that there is a gathering.”

‘No evidence of social distancing’

Shortly after a clip of the press conference surfaced on social media, Australians began expressing their confusion at why the officials appeared not to be practicing social distancing themselves.

“No social distancing happening behind you. How on earth are you going to manage an entire beach when the police can’t stop the public at this press conference?” one person wrote in a comment.

“I see no evidence of social distancing at this press conference? Please explain,” another said.

“Pure and simple, shut the beaches down for now - how the hell are you going to monitor 500 on the beach? You can’t monitor it anywhere else efficiently at the moment,” a third wrote.

They also shared their confusion over why an entire lockdown has not been recommended, especially in regards to schools and other public locations.

“Yes, but closing one beach will only make them flock to others so close all of them simple and how is a beach unsafe but school classrooms are safe,” a woman said.

Another person said the government was “out of touch prior to the pandemic and still out of touch”.

Others accused the officials of stumbling their way through the press conference.

Mr Elliott, Assistant commissioner Karen Webb and Surf Live Saving NSW CEO Steven Pearce were unclear on how it would be decided which beachgoers would be advised to leave if the gathering exceeded 500.

Mass gatherings on beach slammed

Images of scantily clad crowds bunched together on the sand and popular grass hill drew global media attention, with those involved slammed for contributing to an “international embarrassment”.

Waverley Council mayor Paula Masselos on Saturday issued a stern statement to people who chose to visit the crowded the beach, expressing frustration at their ignorance to current advice.

“We all have a role to play in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and I am frustrated that people continue to ignore health advice about social distancing as observed yesterday at Bondi Beach,” she said.

“We all need to behave in a safe and responsible manner so that the spread of this virus can be slowed. No-one is immune to COVID-19 and behaving irresponsibly puts the entire community at risk.”

Data drawn from rapidly escalating cases in Australia has shown the country to be on the same coronavirus trajectory as Italy.

Hundreds congregated at Bondi Beach on Friday despite social distancing guidelines. Source: Yahoo News Australia

New strict measures ignored

Guidelines were ramped up this week, with a four square metre requirement advised for indoor gatherings of less than 100 people, on top of the minimum one metre distance for outdoor spaces.

These strict measures made the scenes on the beach and in local bars and cafes even harder to believe for many Australians, several of whom took to Twitter to express their bewilderment.

“F**k me dead this was Bondi Beach yesterday, what is wrong with these idiots?” one person wrote in a tweet.

“I am disgusted at how Australians and idiot tourists are treating this virus, basically no sh**s are given...is humanity really worth saving if this is the way we act?” another said.

Someone else suggested the crowds far exceeded the 500 person limit on mass gatherings that was enforced by the government from Monday.

“The world watched us just weeks ago battling bushfires and was worried sick about us. Now they're watching probably thinking 'what stupid selfish imbeciles'. Bondi Beach's combined lunacy is harmful,” another wrote.

A doctor working in Bondi said she was “appalled” at the volume of people congregating at the beach.

“As a GP working in Bondi and living in this area with my children, I am appalled at the lack of disregard by many for how serious this all this. Bondi this is not social distancing. You are contributing to the spread of COVID-19,” she wrote.

Crowds of ‘locals’ very disappointing

Her sentiment was echoed by Professor Marylouise McLaws, an expert in infection prevention and control at the University of NSW, who described the behaviour as “very disappointing”.

Professor McLaws said it was possible, with the ongoing changes to government guidelines, Bondi locals may be becoming fatigued by the messaging and perhaps somewhat confused.

“The messaging has changed in the last week and that confuses people,” she told Yahoo News Australia, noting there was no preceding pandemic for authorities to base its management of the outbreak on.

“It’s a very volatile situation, so the messaging is a learnt experience as they go, rather than being learnt from previous outbreaks,” she said.

“I can only imagine that the Bondi community are fatigued or somehow believed that they are not at risk.”

She urged that people, even if they don’t believe they are at risk of suffering from the virus, still take up their social responsibility by keeping their distance from people.

“On the beach, by all means go and enjoy yourself, but have a big distance between you, it’s a big beach. They don’t need to congregate around certain areas.”

Health minister chastises those not social distancing

Health Minister Brad Hazzard on Friday chastised those in Sydney who weren’t taking the coronavirus crisis seriously.

“There were reports yesterday that at Bondi there were thousands of people and many of them were not physically separated,” he said.

“The recommendation is at least 1.5 metres. By all means enjoy the beach, and enjoy being outdoors, but keep your separation.”

In a blunt message to young Australians and tourists dismissive of the effects of COVID-19 on their health, Mr Hazzard reiterated on Saturday afternoon the virus can hospitalise any age group.

“It can hurt you,” he told reporters. 

“Have a little look overseas to see what’s happening. It’s very very bad overseas. That problem is just over the horizon [for Australia].” 

Dr Hazzard said there continues to be a “substantial increase” across all age groups.

 He urged people to adhere to the government’s restrictions on gatherings at beaches.

“Do the right thing by your mates, your family and other Australian residents.”

‘Fine the rule-breakers’

Some pleaded with the government to fine people who did not abide by the social distancing guidelines.

“Why are local councils not doing anything to control this and close the beach? Why isn’t there fines been handed out? Scott Morrison you need to step up and enforce fines for the public safety,” one person wrote to Twitter.

Penalties currently apply to people caught not abiding by self-isolation rules during mandatory 14 day quarantine periods.

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