Drag queens holding “welcome back” signs, topless male models dressed as Bondi lifeguards and free doughnuts were part of the celebrations as passengers from Victoria disembarked the first flights into Sydney airport on Monday morning.
The NSW-Victoria border opened at 12.01am on Monday, allowing Victorians free entry to NSW for the first time since July 8.
Elsewhere, cars began streaming into NSW after road checkpoints were removed at the same time.
At Sydney airport, Jetstar and Qantas arrivals boards ran welcome messages under information for every flight: “Welcome back Victoria, we missed you”.
A media pack yelled out to mask-wearing passengers as though they were celebrities, asking them how they felt about being back in Sydney while friends and family cheered and clapped to the sounds of music playing over the loudspeakers.
One passenger told the ABC many travellers were “fumbling” at check-ins: “Everyone was a bit fumbly getting through the metal detectors and forgetting to take out the computer and the aerosol. Everyone is a bit rusty. We will get there,” he said.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said he hoped Queensland would be next to open its border and allow unrestricted travel.
“I am hopeful that at the end of this month Queensland will open up,” he told ABC radio on Monday.
“The inconsistency around this (border restrictions) is causing concern.”
NSW closed its border with Victoria as the southern state hunkered down to deal with its devastating second wave of the coronavirus.
Monday’s reversal of that decision means NSW is Australia’s only state without any hard border restrictions.
Qantas and Jetstar had 17 return flights between Sydney and Melbourne on Monday, carrying about 4500 passengers.
Virgin Australia will operate four return services a day, or 28 a week, on the route. It plans to progressively increase flight frequency ahead of the Christmas season.
During Victoria’s lockdown, flights between Sydney and Melbourne fell to as few as one a day, on what is normally one of the world’s busiest domestic air routes.
Qantas and Jetstar sold more 25,000 seats in the 48 hours after NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she would lift border restrictions.
Monday’s reopening came as Victoria posted its 24th consecutive day of zero cases and zero deaths. The state has only one active case.
NSW confirmed its 16th day without locally acquired infections on Monday. It had five new cases in people in hotel quarantine.
Meanwhile, Sydney Airport has issued guidelines encouraging passengers and visitors to wear face masks in areas where they cannot maintain a 1.5 metre distance from others.
The airport’s general manager for safety, sustainability and environment, Jane Rotsey, said queuing and congregating would be unavoidable at times.
“From today [Monday] our message to passengers and visitors is ‘social distance if you can, wear a mask if you can’t’.”
Passengers could avoid some queuing by checking in online and arriving one hour before domestic flights, and three hours ahead of international flights.
On Sunday, Ms Berejiklian visited the border town of Wodonga to thank the community for its efforts during the border closure.
“We never want to see this ever again,” she said.
NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said the enormous police operation at the borders had run over 138 days, involved 100,000 police shifts, 40,000 ADF shifts and five million vehicle movements. Police officers had worked away from home in five-day secondments.
The operation ran at 64 sites, stretching for 1000 kilometres.
“The first rotation down there we needed to find 650 police to go and many of those threw their hands up to … feel proud of what the COVID response was from the state of NSW,” he told Sydney radio 2GB.
Queensland remains closed to people from greater Sydney and all of Victoria. Ms Berejiklian, who has regularly criticised Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk for that decision, took another swipe on Monday.
“Some state premiers are making up advice as they go,” she said.
“I know when I visit communities and people come up to me and burst into tears when they think about the fact that they can’t see their
relatives, or burst into tears because they finally can as the Victorian border opens … it is down to people’s lives and down to people’s mental health and wellbeing.”
Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, who flew from Sydney to Melbourne on Monday, was loath to criticise Ms Palaszczuk.
“No one wants to see restrictions in place but restrictions have made Queenslanders safe,” he said.
“I want to be able to travel and I want Australians to travel. I know Annastacia Palaszczuk does too.”