By Sonali Paul

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia’s most populous states held back from relaxing coronavirus restrictions on Saturday although other states began allowing small gatherings and were preparing to open restaurants and shops.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlined a three-stage plan a day earlier to remove most curbs by July and get nearly 1 million people back to work, given that new confirmed coronavirus infections have fallen to less than 20 a day due to strict lockdowns.

In the nation’s capital, Canberra, and some states people can visit each other again, with indoor and outdoor gatherings, including weddings, of up to 10 people allowed.

In South Australia, outdoor dining at restaurants and cafes will be allowed from Monday seating up to 10 people at a time, and in the Northern Territory, pubs, bars and restaurants will reopen next Friday.

But New South Wales and Victoria, home to Sydney and Melbourne and which account for nearly two-thirds of the country’s coronavirus cases, will only outline plans for easing business restrictions next week at the earliest.

“What we’re doing here, is we very clearly have one country, one direction, different speeds,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters in a suburb of Melbourne.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said while the rate of infection in the state had dropped, the government was still working on a plan for getting people back to work. He did not say when that would be ready.

“I understand the energy and exuberance about wanting us to lay out a timetable. All I can say is that at this point, the highest priority…is to keep people safe, but also to find the right balance,” Hazzard told reporters.

Although visits of up to 2 adults in NSW are now allowed, Hazzard urged people not to let their guard down on social distancing and hand-washing when visiting on Mother’s Day on Sunday.

“It’s really tough to not be able to hug your mum or kiss your mum, but it would be the wisest course to not do that,” Hazzard said.

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Many nursing homes around the country started allowing limited visits this weekend, with some requiring temperature checks and proof of flu vaccinations for visitors as well as strict social distancing of 1.5 metres (4.9 ft).

Australia’s total deaths from COVID-19 remain just below 100. Hunt said 770,000 people have been tested across the country and the rate of positive tests has dropped below 1%.

New Zealand reported two new coronavirus cases on Saturday, taking the country’s total to 1,492. It has had 21 deaths linked to the coronavirus.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Edwina Gibbs)


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