Mask rules in offices may be lifted as authorities weigh easing restrictions

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Victorian health authorities are considering removing the requirement for masks to be worn in offices in a move that could spur more workers to return to Melbourne’s CBD.

As Victoria notched a fifth consecutive day of zero new COVID-19 cases on Monday, the state government began considering lifting the mandatory mask rule in offices that has drawn consternation from businesses in recent weeks.

Businesses say mandatory masks have been a major impediment to workers returning to the office.Credit:Getty

While masks would still be required in indoor settings such as supermarkets for the foreseeable future, infectious diseases experts and businesses said it was logical to consider offices as separate entities because they were controlled environments where workers knew each other, simplifying contact tracing.

Victoria’s public health team was meeting on Monday to discuss the next round of eased restrictions, which would likely come into place at 11.59pm on Thursday. Crowd numbers at AFL matches and entertainment venues such as theatres were also high on the agenda.

Acting Chief Health Officer Dan O’Brien, who is covering for Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton while he is on leave, described indoor masks in general as a “safety blanket”, particularly with outbreaks ongoing in states such as New South Wales, which recorded 35 new cases on Monday.

But Associate Professor O’Brien acknowledged that offices could be considered lower risk than other indoor settings.

Acting Chief Health Officer Dan O’Brien said masks in office could be the next rule lifted.Credit:Eddie Jim

“We’re in discussions this week exactly on that point … to consider where if you’re in an office space where you don’t have a public-facing role, you’re just exposed to the people that you work with, where hopefully you know who’s there through your QR codes and obviously staff rosters, that you could maybe move to not needing masks,” he said.

“But that’s something that’s being assessed, we haven’t made a decision on that.”

The slated move to 85 per cent crowd capacity at stadiums including the MCG and Marvel Stadium was delayed last week amid lockdowns across the country, and Associate Professor O’Brien said the situation interstate meant Victorian authorities still needed to be “a bit more cautious in our approach” as they considered restrictions this week.

Bill Lang, director of lobby group Small Business Australia, welcomed signs masks could soon be lifted in offices, saying they serve as a “major impediment” for corporate and small business workers.

“QR codes are now compulsory in offices, employers know who is at work, and they have COVIDSafe plans. The government should trust adults to be adults in the workplace so they can go about their business,” he said.

“The other issue that gets raised with us is the apparent inconsistency between settings. Ten people can sit around a table at a restaurant with their masks off for two or three hours in an environment where they are speaking louder and mingling. In an office people speak at a normal volume and are generally socially distanced.”

Data accumulated by the Property Council of Australia last week found Melbourne office occupancy sunk to 26 per cent after the latest lockdown ended, compared to 67 per cent in Sydney and 71 per cent in Brisbane.

Melbourne lord mayor Sally Capp said foot traffic in the CBD was back to 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels over the weekend but a “sustained effort” was needed to lure more visitors back to the city. Ms Capp said her City of Melbourne council would drop CBD parking to $5 on weekends and after 4pm on weekdays as of Monday.

“We’re still seeing quite some hesitancy to using public transport,” she said.

Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Sally Capp was optimistic on the number of visitors to the city over the weekend.Credit:Joe Armao

Victorian Nationals leader David Walsh said mask rules were also restricting businesses in the regions and while it was reasonable in shopping centres and large indoor areas, a workplace where employees knew each other should be released.

“I think masks are actually stopping people from getting on with their work,” he said.

La Trobe University epidemiologist Hassan Vally said mask-wearing in the office was a “quite significant” cost that needed to be weighed up against the benefit of how much transmission it was preventing in Victoria, which he said was a difficult call.

“Of course if it stops people from going into the office, that is a big cost. Offices are a controllable environment where you can respond effectively if there are cases, so hopefully masks will be relaxed in that setting sooner rather than later,” he said.

“Offices are lower risk than somewhere like a supermarket, an uncontrolled space with lots of mingling of strangers. When the cost is popping on a mask for 10 minutes, that seems like a reasonable thing to hold on to.”

COVID-19 response commander, Jeroen Weimar, warned Victorians in interstate “red zones” such as Greater Sydney that authorities had no immediate plans to relax border restrictions and travellers should therefore start making arrangements if they want to return home soon.

“Do not presume that we are going to flick a switch anytime in the next couple of days,” he warned travellers.

“There’s nothing in those numbers at the moment that makes us think we’re going to reduce those red zones anytime soon.”

Travellers returning from a red zone must isolate at home for 14 days, whereas travellers from oranges zones are only required to isolate awaiting a negative COVID-19 test result.

With Abbi Dib

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