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Sydney lawyer Greg Heathcote and investment banker David Rabinowitz had the same urgent order of business to start the week on Monday: a haircut.

It was the first day both men — and 6 million other people — could get their locks trimmed since Australia’s most populous city on Monday exited more than three months of lockdown.

“It really is an essential service,” Rabinowitz said as he sat in his barber’s chair. “This is the most important thing for the day.”

The state of New South Wales had been one of the world’s most prominent success stories in containing COVID-19, before it fell under some of its strictest stay-at-home orders as an outbreak of the delta variant hit in June.

Residents of the state who have received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine were on Monday once again allowed to start visiting non-essential retail stores, pubs and gyms, with capacity limits. The government eased lockdown measures once 70% of people over age 16 were fully vaccinated.

More freedoms will be introduced later this month once the threshold crosses 80%, and there will be a further lifting for Dec. 1 that will include people who are not fully vaccinated.

A city center barber shop in Sydney on Monday  | REUTERS
A city center barber shop in Sydney on Monday | REUTERS

Prime Minister Scott Morrison also said Sunday that he’s in talks with the NSW government in an effort to “accelerate” a plan to open international travel, including looking at home quarantine for vaccinated Australians wanting to return to the country via Sydney. While Morrison didn’t give a timeline for when the border might reopen, News.com.au reported that the date being eyed was Nov. 1.

“There’s a long journey in front of our state,” NSW state premier Dominic Perrottet told reporters. “There will be challenges that come our way but we have to open up and we have to get people back into work. We have to have businesses open for people’s mental health so they can provide and support and put food on the table.”

The reopening, he added, “needs to be done in a measured and safe way.”

Still, a sense of normalcy settled over the city as cafes abandoned their takeout setups and opened their doors to customers and commuter trains ferried workers to the central business district, though they remained far from peak capacity as rainy weather and an ongoing indoor mask mandate tempered a rush into downtown offices.

“This is more like easing rather than freedom,” Chief Executive Officer of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, told Bloomberg Television. “There is still quite a precaution, medical restrictions in place, mask wearing and so on.”

Sydneysiders are testing their freedom despite NSW still reporting nearly 500 COVID-19 cases per day, as Australia continues to battle the delta variant outbreak. The country’s second-most populous city, Melbourne, remains under a strict stay-home mandate, and recorded more than 1,600 new cases on Monday, though Victoria state will also begin easing measures once it hits the 70% full inoculation threshold.

Still, Westacott said, business were well prepared to open, calling Monday “a day of great relief, of great optimism” that would be a boon for the economy going into the Christmas season.

“There is a huge effort to make sure that we do this safely and that we do this in a way that we can sustain that opening,” she said, “because that’s what businesses say to me — ‘I need to stay open now’ — particularly small businesses don’t have the firepower to keep stopping and starting.”

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