SYDNEY – Since early in the pandemic, Australia has imposed some of the world’s strictest quarantine requirements, effectively walling itself off and stranding thousands of citizens overseas in a bid to keep the coronavirus out.

Now, after a surge in vaccinations, those walls are starting to tumble.

Sydney, the country’s largest city, will stop requiring fully vaccinated travelers to quarantine – either in a hotel or at home – next month, a major shift that will speed the return of stranded Australians and open the door to international travelers early next year.

“We need to rejoin the world,” New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet said Friday. “We can’t live here in a hermit kingdom.”

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The announcement reflects Australia’s shift away from “covid zero” as vaccination rates soared amid a widespread delta outbreak. But it also marks the effective end of a pandemic institution in Sydney: quarantine hotels.

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More than 300,000 people have endured the vaunted – and sometimes reviled – hotel quarantine system, with most serving their mandatory two-week stints in Sydney.

Unvaccinated travelers will still need to enter hotel quarantine but their numbers will be capped at just 30 per day, Perrottet said. Starting Nov. 1, fully vaccinated travelers will only need to provide a negative PCR test before flying to Sydney.

Though Perrottet suggested international tourists could soon return to the state, Prime Minister Scott Morrison later clarified that only Australian citizens, residents and their families – including their parents – would be allowed initially. Skilled migrants and students would be next in line.

“We are not opening up to everyone coming back to Australia at the moment,” Morrison said. He did not say when tourists would be allowed back, but has said previously it will be early next year.

Friday’s announcement nonetheless blows a hole in the ramparts surrounding “Fortress Australia” and forces other parts of the country to figure out how to cope.

Officials in neighboring Victoria state appeared caught off guard by the news, which came just as they announced they were dropping quarantine requirements for vaccinated travelers from New South Wales next week. Combined, the two changes appeared to mean a vaccinated overseas traveler could fly to Sydney and then to Melbourne – the current epicenter of Australia’s outbreak – without quarantining.

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Yet, Victoria is one of three states building large quarantine facilities. The two others, Queensland and Western Australia, have said they intend to stay closed until next year, and Perrottet acknowledged it will soon be easier for Sydneysiders to fly overseas than to parts of Australia.

“I think people in New South Wales will be flying to Bali before Broome,” he said, naming a tourist town in Western Australia, where there are few coronavirus cases and people from New South Wales are not allowed.

New South Wales became the first state with widespread infections to ease its lockdown on Monday when it reopened pubs, restaurants, gyms, barbershops, hair salons, movie theaters and other businesses to vaccinated customers, albeit at reduced capacity. Restrictions are set to ease further next week.

On Friday, the Australian capital, Canberra, also lifted its lockdown after inoculating 70% of its eligible population.

Even in Victoria, which isn’t due to ease its lockdown until late October, life is starting to look different for those who are vaccinated. On Thursday, the state voted to bar unvaccinated lawmakers from parliament, and essential workers must have had at least one shot.

Friday’s news brought tears to the eyes of Natasha Malik, an Australian who moved to Dubai four years ago with her husband. The couple had since separated, leaving Malik feeling trapped and eager to return to Sydney. But the 33-year-old said she didn’t have the roughly $6,500 required for a ticket and hotel quarantine.

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“I can’t tell you how happy I am,” she said in an interview. “This is such a relief. I can finally go back home.”

Malik said she expected the announcement to lead to lower prices for flights. She planned to return to Sydney in December or January, before resuming her studies to become a midwife.

For those returning to Australia to see ailing loved ones, hotel quarantine has often meant missing precious last moments. Phil Davis, an Australian businessman in Nepal, said the changes reassured him he could make it home in time to see his 89-year-old mother if she takes a turn for the worse.

“It is great news,” he said in a Facebook message. “They have done the right thing.”

So many Australians have passed through hotel quarantine that Facebook groups devoted to the experience have tens of thousands of members. Normally filled with complaints over food or tips on how to stay sane, the groups lit up on Friday with news of the announcement, including Australians hoping other states join New South Wales in scrapping hotel quarantine for the vaccinated.

“C’mon Perth,” one person said, referencing the capital of Western Australia. “I want to come home.”

Among the first beneficiaries of Friday’s announcement could be the prime minister, who confirmed he will attend the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in coming weeks. Morrison had previously complained it would mean his fourth stint stuck inside, drawing criticism from Prince Charles and even the Queen.

‘It’s another trip overseas,” Morrison had said, “and I’ve spent a lot of time in quarantine.”

Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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