There are fears New South Wales is teetering on the brink of a Victoria-style coronavirus crisis as infections rapidly spread through popular shopping destinations including IKEA and Westfield.
An alarming new map illustrates how widespread cases in Sydney have become, although the number of confirmed infections pale in comparison to those in Victoria.
New South Wales recorded a further 18 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, and just one was linked to an overseas traveller in mandatory hotel quarantine.
Two more arrived in the state from coronavirus-riddled Victoria prior to testing positive.
But the other 15 cases are either under investigation or linked to previously identified clusters, which are as far reaching as the state’s south coast and Newcastle in the north.
The latest infections prompted Premier Gladys Berejiklian to issue her strongest plea yet for people to wear face masks.
She said harsher restrictions were on the cards if she didn’t see more people wearing masks on public transport, in shopping centres, at churches and public places where social distancing was not possible.
‘Whether it’s school extracurricular activity, which shouldn’t occur, whether it’s the recommendation for people to wear masks when they can’t guarantee social distancing on public transport or in supermarkets, or it’s the way in which we’ve asked businesses to approach a COVID-safe environment, compliance is absolutely critical,’ she said.
Warnings were issued on Wednesday for Castle Towers Shopping Centre, Westfield Parramatta and IKEA in Rhodes after people with confirmed COVID cases passed through the venues.
A person who was diagnosed with coronavirus visited IKEA on August 8 and Westfield on August 5 – both while unwittingly infectious.
Ms Berejiklian said the state remained on ‘high alert’ as she announced the new cases on Wednesday morning.
The virus also spread to the south coast, with infected Sydneysiders still permitted to travel to regional and rural communities under current health directives.
Huskisson restaurant Wildginger closed after two patrons from Sydney who dined there on Saturday evening received positive test results for COVID-19.
Patrons and staff who were at the venue have been advised to self-isolate for 14 days and get tested for COVID-19.
Eleven cases have been linked to the Batemans Bay Soldiers’ Club, while customers who visited Baby Bunting in Penrith in Sydney’s west between 1.15pm and 1.45pm last Saturday have been urged to stay on high alert for symptoms.
Other COVID-19 sites that are currently causing headaches for authorities and contact tracers include Tangara School in Cherrybrook, with 19 cases so far.
‘We have watched closely what has happened in New Zealand and Victoria,’ the premier said on Wednesday.
‘I also want to commend the police for leading a number of scenarios where we have desktopped what might happen if we have to go down that path.’
Ms Berejiklian said if a lockdown is imposed, it would be across Sydney and not just in hotspots.
‘It seems apparent that any future scenario would involve cities rather than postcodes or local government areas,’ she said.
The rise in mystery infections is causing particular concern for the premier, who has repeatedly said the state sits ‘on a knife edge’.
‘We need to go further. Because our concern is those cumulative accumulation of those unknown sources,’ she said.
Health Minister Brad Hazzard joined the premier in urging people to wear face masks.
‘The bottom line here is, masks,’ Mr Hazzard said.
‘If you’re on public transport, you really should be wearing a mask. We’re not making it mandatory at this stage but we’re certainly saying to the community, wear a mask.
‘If you’re in the shopping centres wear a mask. If you go to church, or a place of worship, wear a mask.
‘It’s not a matter of actually asking whether it’s ok to do it, it’s a case of just do it.’
One case from Wednesday was linked to Our Lady of Mercy College in Parramatta, taking the cluster at the school to three.
The source of the newest case is under investigation, as it has not been directly linked to the previous two cases, with the school now closed for 14 days.
Students and staff have been advised to self-isolate for 14 days, monitor their health and get tested for COVID-19.
The school is expected to reopen on Monday, August 24.
The closure comes after several clusters popped up schools across the state with the number of cases linked to the Tangara School for Girls in Cherrybrook in the city’s north-west rising to 19 on Wednesday.
An overnight religious retreat reportedly took place shortly before the first Tangara case was diagnosed.
‘Extracurricular activities, those excursions, overnight things which you would ordinary do are not acceptable during the pandemic,’ Ms Berejiklian said on Tuesday.
‘I’m absolutely paranoid about what I do myself, the worst thing to be would be unintentionally give it to others.’
The stern warning was echoed by the Independent Education Union of Australia.
‘Extra-curricular activities should be curtailed,’ branch secretary Mark Northam said in a statement.
An investigation is underway into reports several students attended an overnight religious retreat in Bargo, 90km south-west of Sydney, before they tested positive, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
The school insists it had nothing to do with the retreat and that it was organised by the nearby Eremeran study centre with the Catholic organisation Opus Dei.
‘The school has not held any camps or retreats for its students since March 2020, when the COVID-19 restrictions for schools came into place,’ a school statement read.
The Tangara School for Girls secondary campus will remain closed until at least August 24.
All students, staff and support staff at the secondary campus have been ordered to get tested for and self-isolate at home for two weeks, even if a negative test result is returned.
Despite the growing cases, Ms Berejiklian has announced NSW residents returning from Victoria will have their hotel quarantine fee waived for the next month to ease the financial burden on returnees.
The charge will be waived retrospectively and apply to NSW residents already in hotel quarantine after travelling from Victoria.
Ms Berejiklian said the NSW Government recognised the cost of hotel quarantine was a challenge for many NSW residents making their way home from Victoria.
‘Hotel quarantine is key to reducing the risk of seeding of COVID-19 from Victoria into NSW,’ Ms Berejiklian said.
‘We have listened to the concerns of NSW residents who say they cannot afford to come home to NSW and will now give them more time to return.
‘We are asking any NSW residents who are in Victoria and want to come home to make their way back to NSW before Friday, 11 September if they want to avoid paying for hotel quarantine.’
Health Minister Brad Hazzard said a number of NSW residents wanting to come home are experiencing hardship.
‘We understand the cost associated with hotel quarantine has made it difficult for NSW residents to return home from Victoria – that is why we have waived that cost for the next month,’ Mr Hazzard said.
‘These changes are also retrospective and will apply to NSW residents who have travelled from Victoria and are already in hotel quarantine.’
The moratorium on the hotel quarantine charge for NSW residents will expire at 12:01am on Friday, September 11.
There are 133 COVID-19 cases in hospital with eight patients in intensive care and seven being ventilated.