After months of no COVID-19 cases outside of hotel quarantine, South Australians learned of some worrying developments on Sunday.
A woman in her 80s tested positive to the virus at the Lyell McEwin Hospital emergency department in Adelaide.
It soon became apparent the woman had caught the virus from her daughter, a cleaner at the Peppers medi-hotel in the Adelaide CBD, one of several sites across the city where international travellers undergo isolation.
By Monday, most of the woman’s extended family were considered to be COVID cases, and contact tracing was underway at dozens of sites across the city.
By Tuesday, the cluster had expanded to include two security guards who had worked at the Peppers hotel.
One of the guards worked a second job at the Woodville Pizza Bar. About the same time, another case of COVID-19 emerged – a worker at a separate CBD quarantine hotel, the Stamford.
Contact tracers initially struggled to identify the source of transmission. But after interviewing the Stamford worker, established he had ordered takeaway from the pizza bar.
The pizza link
This development alarmed health authorities.
Had the virus been spread by a pizza delivery?
The Chief Public Health Officer was already worried that the virus seemed to be reproducing rapidly.
A public health alert was issued, urging anyone who had ordered food from, or attended the pizza bar over a 10-day period to immediately isolate and seek a coronavirus test.
Then authorities took more drastic action – forcing South Australians to remain at home for six days, shutting down businesses, schools and industry.
This was not a Victorian-style lockdown, they insisted, but a “circuit breaker” designed to buy some breathing space for contact tracers to catch up.
Tellingly, the closure also included takeaway food outlets, which had remained open through earlier shutdowns.
The lie exposed
With the state locked down, and contact tracing happening at a furious rate, not everything was adding up.
Soon it became clear. At a press conference on Friday morning, the Premier Steven Marshall dropped a bombshell – revealing police investigations had established that the alleged “pizza customer” had lied.
He had, in fact, worked in the pizza bar, and had been a close contact of the other infected worker.
The government and police were furious – they had shut down the state based upon a lie. That decision had already had tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars of economic impact.
But the authorities were also relieved. The close contact between the two workers had explained the transmission of the virus. It was far less likely the virus could be spreading throughout the community untracked.
The Premier and Police Commissioner announced the lockdown would end midnight Saturday, with restrictions reverting to far less serious limitations announced on Monday.
However, the risk is not over. Authorities are still trying to track thousands of people potentially linked to the pizza bar and other locations of concern.
What happens to the man who lied to contact tracing?
Late on Friday afternoon, Police Commissioner Grant Stevens backtracked on his earlier stance that the man would face no penalty.
He announced a task force, led by Assistant Commissioner Peter Harvey, to look at numerous pieces of legislation which may have been breached, including criminal law, the Emergency Management Act or public health acts.
Mr Harvey said the investigation would be “thorough and fair” despite the “high emotion” involved.
He would not comment “any other behaviour that may be alleged or suspected” in relation to the owner or managers of the pizza bar, except that it would be investigated.
Premier Steven Marshall said police would look at “all and every avenue to throw the book at this person”.
He said the task force was set up to “to look at all and every aspect of the evidence that was provided and the consequences that have ensued from there”.
“There have got to be consequences for this person,” Mr Marshall told ABC Radio Adelaide.
Police are yet to reveal what they understand to be the man’s motivations.
However, they are prepared for recriminations.
A police car remains parked outside the Woodville Pizza Bar.