‘Stop looking for loopholes’: What are the new COVID-19 social rules?

‘Stop looking for loopholes’: What are the new COVID-19 social rules?

I n our new reality under the COVID-19 pandemic, no matter where you live in Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has advised there are really only four acceptable reasons to go out:

  • Shopping for what you need: food or supplies to help keep you at home, including going to the petrol station, ATM or other essential services
  • Getting medical care or for compassionate or emergency reasons such as caring for someone, dropping off supplies, visiting a sick relative in hospital, taking an animal to the vet or if you are fleeing danger
  • Exercising outside, including dog walking
  • Attending work or school if you cannot do them from home, and attending childcare.

Sound a bit full-on? So are the potential consequences of getting COVID-19. The idea of these rules is to slow the spread of the coronavirus by limiting contact with others, thereby flattening the rate of infections and ensuring our hospitals are not overwhelmed. So far, Australians have been doing a good job of following the rules. The number of new infections recorded every day is falling. But our medical experts have warned now is “not the time to take the foot off the brake” – complacency could see Australia lose its window to contain the outbreak, and cases rapidly explode again.

Whenever you go out, you must stick with just those in your household or up to one other external person, and you should keep your distance (about two steps or 1.5 metres). Wash or sanitise your hands regularly and ditch the handshake and the kiss hello.

But every state is enforcing these rules differently: South Australia and the Northern Territory, for example, are penalising people for gathering in groups of 10 or more while NSW, the ACT and Victoria have police out looking for breaches of a two-person limit on public “gatherings”.

In all states, police emphasise a “common sense” approach. And yet common sense, as we know, isn’t always so common. NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller has proposed this rule of thumb: “If you’re questioning whether you should be doing something, best to give it a miss.” Victoria’s Chief Medical Officer, Brett Sutton, has urged people to “stop looking for loopholes”.

As questions from you flood into police, governments – and our newsrooms – about what will and won’t get you pinged with an on-the-spot fine, we have the scoured guidelines and public comments from leaders, and put your questions to governments and the police. Here is what we know so far.

Can I have people over to my home or visit others?

In all states, you can still visit someone in an emergency or to provide care – or even drop off supplies. But when it comes to social visits to households, it’s the unnecessary guests that are now advised against, even if you live alone. Spending time together inside a house, as opposed to on a walk outside, gives the virus more opportunities to spread in bathrooms and kitchens. House parties, and even backyard barbecues are out.

Victoria has taken one of the tougher lines on guests – banning all non-essential, social visits to homes even between relatives. Premier Daniel Andrews has spoken of a recent dinner party in Victoria. One person was infected with COVID-19 at the start of the night but by the end, several guests had come down with the new illness.

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In NSW, the position is similar. There are 16 excuses for leaving your home but none of them involve dinner parties, barbecues or beers with mates (see the list below).

In Queensland, social visits are allowed for up to two visitors to each household, although strangers can’t visit. Tasmania and the ACT still also let you have up to two visitors as long as you are following social distancing measures – allowing space for one person per four square metres. (So if you live in a tiny apartment you might still have to reconsider guests).

In WA, you can have members of the same household, partners or family visit – up to one person at a time. Even then, they need to remain 1.5 metres away from you – and this rule will be reviewed in mid-April. In South Australia and the Northern Territory, socialising is discouraged but gatherings are limited to 10.

Here’s something else to bear in mind when deciding what to do: people over 70 and people with chronic illness – including common conditions such as high blood pressure – are particularly susceptible to complications and even death from the virus. This means parents, grandparents and older friends are particularly at risk. Every visit brings with it the chance of infection, and some carriers are asymptomatic too – they don’t even know they have COVID-19 in their bodies.

What is a reasonable excuse to be out of your home in NSW?

* Buying food or other goods or services for the personal needs of the household or other household purposes (including pets) and for vulnerable people

* Travelling to work if you can’t work from home

* Travelling to childcare (including picking up or dropping another person at childcare)

* School or uni drop-offs if the student can’t learn from home (this includes taking an L-plater out driving in NSW)

* Exercising (more on that below)

* Obtaining medical care or supplies or health supplies or fulfilling carer’s responsibilities

* Attending a wedding or a funeral in approved circumstances

* Moving to a new home (including a business moving to new premises) or between your different homes, or inspecting a potential new home.

* Providing care or assistance (including personal care) to a vulnerable person or providing emergency assistance

* Donating blood

* Undertaking any legal obligations (including attending court or fulfilling bail requirements)

* Accessing public services (whether provided by government, a private provider or a non-government organisation) including social services, employment services, domestic violence services mental health services, and services provided to victims (including as victims of crime)

* For children who do not live in the same household as their parents or siblings, or one of their parents or siblings – continuing existing arrangements for access to, and contact between, parents and children or siblings

* For a priest, minister of religion or member of a religious order – going to a person’s place of worship or providing pastoral care to another person

* Avoiding injury or illness or to escape a risk of harm

* For emergencies or compassionate reasons

What about visiting my lover if we don’t live together?

This was briefly a vexed issue in Victoria and NSW because social visits are otherwise banned. Victoria quickly backed down on its “bonk ban”, after advising on April 1 that people should not visit or be intimate with partners they didn’t live with. Within hours, it had made a specific exemption for romantic couples. NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller came to the same conclusion by a different route: he said visiting a partner fell under the category of “care”, which is one of the 16 reasonable excuses (listed above) for not staying home. “Mental health,” he said, “we get it … we need to look after each other – but don’t take the whole family with you.” In the other states and territories, visitors can include partners.

People can visit as carer.

People can visit as carer.Credit:

Can I still have people over to babysit?

While child custody arrangements remain unaffected by the restrictions, the rules around babysitting are less clear – although it appears to fall under either care or work in most states. In NSW, it hasn’t emerged as an issue yet. Victoria has clarified its own rules to allow you to have someone over to care for children if you need to leave the house for one of the four essential reasons above, or if you are working or studying from home.

‘It’s not smart and it’s not right,’ said Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews about grandparents babysitting.

Still, older or Indigenous Australians and those with chronic conditions have been advised by medical experts, including Australia’s chief health officers, to stay home where they can and limit contact with relatives, even grandchildren. “Sadly I don’t think grandparents can be drafted in for very much at all,” Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said when asked about babysitting. “It is simply not smart, not right for us to be putting those people at risk.” He acknowledged this was often painful for people, speaking of a new grandparent who had been unable to meet their grandson since the pandemic hit.

What about cleaners and tradies?

Yes, but only if it’s essential (this is no time for a backyard blitz) and while keeping your distance. In NSW, as we’ve seen above, cleaning will fall under caring when it’s for someone vulnerable. In Victoria, if you are unwell, disabled, elderly or pregnant you can have a service provider or tradie over “if you really need help”. “For example,” the government advice says, “your Wi-Fi might be faulty and you need it to work from home. Or, you might have a leaking pipe causing damage. A tradesperson is permitted to enter your home to fix the problem, but you must ensure physical distancing while they are there.” Similarly, house cleaners are framed in the guidelines as being for those who need help, physically. If you’re helping an elderly friend or relative who lives alone with cleaning and housework, the government advises, think about having them sit somewhere comfortable and away from you while you work. For the rest of us, it might be time to dust off the feather duster.

In Queensland, the limit of two visitors is not affected by someone who’s at the house to work (for example, a cleaner, a nanny or tradesperson), according to guidelines. “This means for example, three tradespeople could be at your house to do repairs, and you can still have a close friend at your house, with your regular household members.” Safe Work Australia is advising cleaners and tradespeople to maintain physical distance at all times in homes.

No mucking around! Make beach visits quick and for exercise. And check whether a beach is open before you head out.

No mucking around! Make beach visits quick and for exercise. And check whether a beach is open before you head out.Credit:

What about exercise outdoors?

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has kept going for morning walks every day during the crisis. Victoria’s Chief Medical Officer, Brett Sutton, has mentioned taking a 20-minute evening constitutional around his neighbourhood. As the Prime Minister has said, exercise is one of the four acceptable reasons to be out of your home.

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But again, there are caveats. While group boot camps are out, you can walk, job, cycle or do push-ups with your household or someone external, including a personal trainer, as long as it’s just the two of you and you stay 1.5 metres apart. You could even grab a takeaway coffee but, as NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has urged, keep moving – the aim is to avoid people clustering together, and NSW Police have stressed that people hanging about will attract their attraction. Basically, walk the dog, do yoga in a park, go for a walk around your neighbourhood … but keep your distance from others. Note that the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services has said: “Recreational exercise such as fishing, hunting, boating, golf and other activities that go beyond basic exercise, are not allowed.”

How far can you drive for, say, exercise?

If you keep the word “essential” in mind, then rambling Sunday drives or road trips where you pop out of the car right at the end to stretch your legs are probably not a great idea right now. In fact, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller has told ABC Radio the Easter long weekend is not an excuse for people to travel just anywhere and people should not be going for a drive – even if they have no intention of getting out of the car. In Victoria, police rescinded a fine for a man who was driving half-an-hour to go mountain biking alone – at the nearest track to his home. Driving to an exercise spot alone is acceptable. (Given the two-person rule, you could conceivably meet someone from another household at your destination but you should not drive there together.)

In Queensland, those considering travelling to walk on a beach should think again: beaches are accessible only to people who live in the immediate area, with police signalling they will step up random ID checks over the Easter weekend. People are not allowed to travel, for example, from Brisbane to the Gold Coast to visit the beach, and will be fined if police do spot checks. Border controls are in force in Queensland too and more than 900 cars had been turned around by April 8. Within WA too, if you drive far enough, you might come up against one of the around-the-clock checkpoints and mobile policing among the state’s nine major regions. The Kimberley and Goldfields-Esperance regions have been completely locked down for all but essential services. See details below.

L-platers: depends where you live.

L-platers: depends where you live.Credit:

Can I still take my son (who lives with me and is a learner driver) out for driving practice?

That depends on where you live. NSW Police have issued a statement saying learning to drive with a household member is considered a reasonable excuse to leave home “given that this is a learning activity that cannot be done from home and is akin to the listed reasonable excuse of travelling to attend an educational institution where you cannot learn from home”.

Victoria has come down differently on the issue. A learner driver made news recently after she was fined $1652 for practising driving with her mother, which police said was “non-essential”. Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton later acknowledged this was not a fair fine because the rules were unclear and there was no precedent. But Victorian authorities stand by the fact that a driving lesson is not essential, and Patton has said any future cases will be fined. An L-plater can drive for essential activities, such as buying essentials or for medical care.

In Queensland, the Chief Health Officer’s direction is to only undertake essential travel. So, again, you could supervise your child driving to and from these essential activities. The WA government is recommending all learner driver lessons, outside essential travel, also be deferred for now but the transport department is “prioritising driving tests for emergency services and personnel and for heavy vehicles to keep the freight industry operating”.

What are the ‘medical or compassionate reasons’ for being able to leave your home in Victoria?

  • To visit a doctor or other medical professional, or to obtain medical supplies
  • To donate blood
  • If you have shared parenting obligations and need to transport children between homes, under an informal   or court-ordered arrangement
  • If you have carer responsibilities, for example, a foster care or respite care obligation
  • to drop off or pick up a child at childcare, early childhood education or school if you need to go to work or study
  • To provide care and support to a relative or other person – such as shopping, cooking or house-cleaning – to someone because of their old age, infirmity, disability, sickness, chronic health condition or because they may be pregnant or have mental health concerns
  • To visit someone in an aged care facility or disability accommodation 
  • To visit someone in hospital 
  • To attend the funeral service of a relative or close friend, noting that the maximum permitted number of mourners is 10
  • To get married, or be a witness to a marriage
  • If there is family violence, or violence by another person in the home, and you are at risk.
Easter holidays? Stay home.

Easter holidays? Stay home. Credit:

What about Easter holidays – are we good to go?

Sorry. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has told Australians to stay at home this Easter weekend, saying failure to do so “would completely undo everything we have achieved so far together”. An influx of visitors to holiday spots exposes communities in those areas to infection and could strain local medical services if someone becomes ill.

In Victoria, Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton has said that if people have more than one “ordinary place of residence” then they can move between them. “You got a holiday house? You can go to that,” he told 3AW radio. But go there, go straight there and stay there, only going out for one of the four valid reasons – to shop for food and other essentials; to access medical services or provide caregiving; to go to work or education; and to exercise – or you can be fined.

In NSW, taking a holiday in a regional area is not a reasonable excuse to be moving about.

A man told 3AW radio on April 7 he had received a $1652 fine for non-essential travel after visiting his beach house on the Mornington Peninsula to check its security. “I went down by myself. On the way home, I thought, I’ll make a little detour and get rid of an empty gas bottle …,” he said.

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Towing a caravan and setting it up somewhere is also out in Victoria – and an ordinary place of residence is not a short-term holiday rental. “You should be cancelling your booking for the Easter weekend. If you’ve booked an Airbnb, you should be staying home in your permanent residence,” Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said. Airbnb have cancellation policies in place that allow you to cancel and get a full refund if you booked before March 14.

In NSW, the public health orders specifically spell it out: “Taking a holiday in a regional area is not a reasonable excuse.” Short-term rentals such as Air BnBs can be used for work, education or for caring purposes but not for holidaying.

In Queensland, which has also closed its borders, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has gone so far as to say, “Easter holidays are cancelled this year”. Queensland police have strongly suggested they will issue an on-the-spot fines of $1334 to people travelling to a second house for no good reason, such as a holiday house or apartment near a beach. If you are able to make a convincing case that your travel is for essential purposes, such as for work, that might be fine but if the “work” is simply mowing the yard or so on then it is not advisable.

In WA, the state has not only closed its borders but has broken up the state into nine regions – drivers cannot pass beyond those checkpoints without a valid reason. You couldn’t travel from Perth to a holiday home in, say, Dunsborough, in the South West region, unless you were an essential worker or travelling on compassionate grounds.

Meanwhile, South Australia and the ACT have warned people not to pitch tents in national parks or travel to coastal or regional communities.

While you can’t go to church, some Easter services are being broadcast on television and some are being “live-streamed”, which means you can watch them on your computer broadcast in real time. Of course, there won’t be any parishioners, just the priest and whoever is needed to film the service. Search online for details.

Can I move house?

Yes if you have to. You can even have removalists but you must adhere to physical distancing rules.

Fishing? It depends where you live.

Fishing? It depends where you live.Credit:

Can I go fishing, take the boat out or play golf?

“No one likes playing golf more than I do,” Victoria‘s Premier Daniel Andrews has said. “You might want to play golf but you don’t need to play golf. No round of golf is worth someone’s life.” Victoria’s Chief Medical Officer, Brett Sutton, has ruled out not just golf but fishing, boating, hunting, camping and “all recreational activity beyond basic exercise”. “Hang up your rods, leave the tinnie in the driveway, and clean your [golf] clubs at home.”

In NSW, hunting is suspended but fishing is OK – the Department of Primary Industries characterises it as exercise. Golf is fine, too. (Golf courses were initially closed on advice of the federal government but, after reconsideration, the NSW Office of Sport deemed golf an activity that can be played in line with Public Health Orders.) And so is boating. A “reasonable excuse” to use your boat could be to exercise (for example, kayaking, sailing, paddling); fish; get to and from work when you can’t work from home; get groceries; and provide help or care to an immediate member of the person’s family. Again, social distancing rules always apply – at the boat ramp and on your boat. You should be in your boat alone or with just one other person; or with family who ordinarily live in the same household as you.

In Queensland, even if two people are in a tinnie they are still required to socially distance.

Golf is good in Queensland as long as it is with just two people who are physically distant. Boating was banned but now boaties can locally fish or travel for food but not recreation (it’s not clear where this leaves anglers). Other forms of water sports, including kayaking and paddleboarding, are also still allowed in Queensland, and state-run boat ramps remain open. Even so, the federal provisions limiting public gatherings to two people or less still apply, and even if two people are in a tinnie they are still required to socially distance.

WA has not expressly banned recreational fishing or boating but fishers have been encouraged to stay at home and recreational fishing body Recfishwest says you should head out only for essential food gathering. Golf is OK, though. Some clubs are open and some have opted to shut. You have to play in a one or a two, physically distancing as you go, and call the club first, both to see if they’re open and to get an allocated tee-time.

The ACT has banned all outdoor recreation beyond exercise as non-essential.

What are the 13 acceptable reasons for being out in Queensland?

  • To obtain essential goods and services
  • To receive medical treatment or health care services
  • To exercise, either alone or with one other person or those who reside in the same household
  • To do work or volunteering that is essential and cannot be done from home (this is any type of work that is not restricted under the latest ‘non-essential business activity and undertaking closure’ direction)
  • To visit another person’s house, as long as there are no more than two people who are not ordinarily members of that household
  • To visit a terminally ill relative or attend a funeral
  • To assist, care for or support immediate family members or close friends
  • To attend court or comply with a court order
  • To attend a childcare facility, school, university, or other educational institution to receive instruction that is not possible to receive at home.
  • To assist with an investigation by police or other law enforcement authority
  • To all shared custody arrangements of children under 18 years of age, whether informal or court-ordered, can continue as normal. You are allowed to leave the house to take children from one parent’s home to the other parent’s home
  • To avoid illness, injury or the risk of harm
  • To comply with directions of a government agency.

If I’m over 70, can I go to the bank or get my hair done?

You can do these things, if it’s essential or for compassionate reasons (say, you physically cannot wash and style your own hair) but governments strongly urge people aged 70 or over, or 60 with chronic medical conditions, to avoid contact because they are at higher risk of complications or death from COVID-19.

So, while banks and hairdressers are deemed essential services and remain open, it’s better if you speak to your bank over the telephone and see how they can assist you; or potentially request that a hairdresser visit you at home; or find a relative, carer or support person who can help you. Now is the time to prevail on others.

You can phone the Coronavirus Hotline on 1800 675 398 for more information. Victoria’s Council on the Ageing has a phone hotline from 9.30am until 4pm on 1300 135 090. In Queensland, the Community Recovery Hotline, a free call on 1800 173 349, will link seniors and other vulnerable Queenslanders to essential services and support.

Who can cross borders in WA?

WA Police have set up around-the-clock checkpoints and mobile policing among WA’s nine major regions. The Kimberley and Goldfields-Esperance regions have been completely locked down, meaning any person who is outside the region can only enter if:

  • they are providing essential services or supplies
  • they have been quarantined from the general public for the previous 14 days
  • they qualify for a special exemption (including mining and food production) and adhere to strict conditions that minimise the risk of COVID-19 spread.

People who cross into another region without valid reasons could face a $50,000 fine.

A hard state border closure is also in force. Anyone seeking to come into WA will now be turned away unless they have a valid exemption.

Who is exempt from the border closure? 

  • health services
  • emergency service workers
  • transport, freight and logistics
  • specialist skills not available in WA 
  • national or state security and governance
  • courts and judicial service
  • compassionate grounds, as approved by WA police

There will also be exemptions for fly-in-fly-out workers and their families but strict 14-day quarantine measures will need to be followed, paid for by the industry. So anyone travelling from interstate or overseas will still be required to self-isolate for 14 days on arrival, and anyone who does not adhere to this law can be prosecuted. One man quarantined in a Perth hotel was taken into custody for breaching his quarantine by sneaking out because he wanted to “visit his girlfriend”.

Who has been fined so far?

As of April 7, NSW Police have issued 122 personal infringement notices under the Public Health Act since March 17. Among the latest was an off-duty policewoman who was observed allegedly drunk on a city street being assisted by a man. She later told police she had been at a nearby apartment with others including another off-duty policeman. Five people in total were issued infringement notices resulting from the incident.

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In Victoria, police have issued 491 fines for breaches of coronavirus lockdown rules as of April 8. Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said police have been directed to only give fines for “deliberate, obvious and blatant breaches” and to use a “common-sense approach”. Clear examples include Airbnb parties with 20 guests, where every attendee was fined; a seven-person dinner party at a house; three friends playing video games in a loungeroom who did not live together; a group of friends hanging out in a park; and four people walking the streets seeking drugs. There have been grey areas. Police have rescinded fines for a man booked for driving to go mountain biking alone – driving to an exercise spot alone is acceptable. And there was the 17-year-old fined during a driving lesson with her mum, although police have clarified driving lessons are not essential activity moving forward.

In Queensland, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk warned that police would step up fines after seeing images of a bustling farmers’ market on April 4 where patrons had ignored social distancing rules. In the same weekend, police went on to issue 132 fines for $1334, including to 58 people at one car rally in Rochedale. By March 8, police had given out 208 fines, including to five people on April 7 for partying at a Sunshine Coast hotel, claiming they did not know about the social distancing requirements.

In WA, drones with lights, sirens and speakers have been brought in to deter people from breaking the rules and there are new on-the-spot $1000 fines for anyone found to be flouting them. According to Premier Mark McGowan, by April 8 three infringements had been issued and eight people had been summoned for breaching directives such as quarantine and self-isolation rules.

– with Michael Fowler, Marta Pascual Juanola

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