Australia's strict new coronavirus social distancing rules explained: state by state guidelines

Matilda Boseley and Christopher Knaus
Photograph: Simon Bullard/EPA

On Sunday night the prime minister announced the tightening of restrictions to try to stop the spread of Covid-19. Gatherings are now limited to a maximum of two people.

But several states have gone much further while others have opted not to follow the new recommendations.

So what are the laws as they currently stand?

These are the laws as of Thursday 2 April. This article will be updated as new laws are implemented or repealed.

Related: Australia coronavirus shutdown: what is open, closed and banned under the current rules?

Queensland

Queensland has announced a state of emergency, and along with enforcing the two-person limit, residents are now only allowed to leave their home for one of eight essential reasons. These are:

  • Obtaining food or other essential goods or services

  • Obtaining medical treatment or other healthcare services

  • Engaging in physical exercise, either alone or in the company of no more than one other person; or in the company of a family group who ordinarily live in the same household

  • Performing work on behalf of an employer that is engaged in essential business, activity or undertaking, and the work to be performed is of a nature that cannot reasonably be performed from the person’s principal place of residence

  • Visiting a terminally ill relative or to attend a funeral

  • Providing assistance, care or support to an immediate member of the person’s family

  • Attending any court of Australia or to comply with or give effect to orders of the court

  • Attending a childcare facility, school, university or other educational institution, to the extent care or instruction cannot reasonably be obtained in the person’s principal place of residence

A full list can be found here.

Queensland now restricts gatherings of more than two people. This applies in public areas but exempts members of the same household.

This means if someone leaves their house for an essential reason, such as exercise, they can be joined by only one other person or the members of their household.

On Thursday the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said that inside a person’s home they were allowed to have all the members of the household and two guests.

Palaszczuk said this amendment is intended to help families who may not all live in the same home to stay connected. She also clarified that those who live alone are allowed to have one or two social guests.

Queensland police officers will be able to issue on-the-spot fines of $1,334.50 for individuals and $6,672.50 for corporations, who breach these laws. The maximum penalties available through the courts will be 10 times those amounts.

From 3 April, Queensland borders will be closed to everyone except residents and essential workers, including freight carriers and emergency workers. This includes erecting barriers in the Gold Coast suburb of Coolangatta, which straddles both Queensland and NSW.

There are some exemptions for those who regularly cross the Queensland-NSW border for work.

New South Wales

As of 12am Tuesday, NSW residents now legally have to stay in their homes unless they have a “reasonable excuse” for leaving.

“Reasonable excuses” are broadly categorised as:

  • Obtaining food or other goods and services

  • Travelling for the purposes of work or education if the person cannot do it at home

  • Exercise

  • Medical or caring reasons

The full list of reasonable excuses can be found here.

The state’s police commissioner, Michael Fuller, said that visiting romantic partners would be considered to fall under “care” as it supports mental health.

Movement is also allowed for the purpose of moving into a new home or inspecting a potential new home, providing care or assistance to a vulnerable person or in an emergency, and undertaking legal obligations, accessing government services, or donating blood. Exemptions also exist for priests or members of religious orders, and where someone is escaping potential injury, illness or harm.

Children who live across two households can continue to switch between houses.

NSW has also adopted the two-person gathering limit.

Fuller indicated that police would be on the streets to enforce these new rules.

The new laws were published late on Monday night. They allow for fines of up to $11,000 or six months’ imprisonment for those who leave the home without a reasonable excuse, plus an additional $5,500 fine each day the offence continues. Fines for businesses are higher still.

It appears it will be left to police officers’ discretion who will receive a fine.

Victoria

Victoria has adopted a similar system.

Residents can only leave the house for one of five essential reasons. These are:

  • Shopping for food or other essential goods and services

  • Work and education

  • Care and compassionate reasons

  • Exercise

  • Other extenuating circumstances

A full breakdown of these reasons can be found here.

The two-person gathering rules also apply inside and outside the home. This rule exempts people who live in the same household, whether this be a family unit or roommates.

Victoria’s chief health officer, Dr Brett Sutton, tweeted on Wednesday that exemptions would be made for visiting romantic partners.

Police officers are responsible for deciding who will receive penalties. They may ask individuals to prove why they are out of the home or prove a group are members of the same household, but deputy commissioner Shane Patton said officers would use “common sense” and were experienced in knowing who was being truthful.

Victorians cannot visit family members who do not live with them, but may drop off food and supplies for care and compassionate reasons.

Children who may need to move between the houses of their parents or carers are also allowed to travel, and court-ordered visitation rights for parents can also be upheld.

Penalties include on-the-spot fines of up to $1,652 for individuals and $9,913 for businesses. Larger fines and even the possibility of criminal charges are also available.

The premier, Daniel Andrews, said this new wave of restrictions was part of the state’s “stage three” shutdown.

Tasmania

Tasmania has implemented a similar system, with individuals only allowed to leave their homes for essential reasons and gatherings limited to two people. However there is more scope for exemptions from these rules than in other states.

Reason for Tasmanians to go out in public include:

  • Shopping for supplies

  • Undertaking personal exercise

  • Attending medical or healthcare appointments or for medical treatment.

  • Seeking veterinary services

  • Providing social support or care to another person

  • Attending school or study, if unable to be done at home

  • Attending work, or volunteering, if unable to be done at home

  • Performing essential maintenance, or security inspections, of other premises owned or occupied, by the person

  • Attending another location if the person has a reasonable excuse, in the opinion of the director of public health

An example of a “reasonable excuse” given by the premier’s office was clearing out a recently deceased relative’s house.

Tasmania also restricts gatherings of more than two people inside and outside the home, however they have a broad definition of exempted “social support”. This allows families to visit one another’s homes, couples who live apart to stay at each other’s residences, and those who live alone to have visitors.

However, in public, the two-person gathering limit is strictly applied.

Australian defence force members, the Tasmanian State Emergency Service, and fire service volunteers have been enlisted to help carry out spot checks.

Fines could be as much as $16,800 or six months in jail.

Tasmania also requires that all non-essential traveller entering the state quarantine for a period of 14 days.

Western Australia

Western Australian has now adopted strict border restrictions, dividing the state into nine regions that residents can not move between without good reason.

Reasons for crossing include:

  • Travelling to work

  • Attending medical appointments

  • Transporting freight

  • Accessing groceries or supplies if these are not available in the current region

  • Returning home

  • Attending school or other educational institutions

  • Supporting family members where necessary

  • Compassionate grounds

WA will not be fining residents for leaving their homes for non-essential reasons, however, the premier still urged residents to stay home wherever possible and take a “common sense” approach.

The state has followed federal recommendations of limiting gatherings to no more than two people, both inside and outside the home. This exempts those living in the same house, as well as weddings and funerals.

In WA, you are allowed to be joined by all those in your household and one guest, and there are some further exemptions for family.

Legislation will enter parliament this week to allow police officers to issue on-the-spot fines for those who do not comply. However, fines of up to $50,000 are currently available through the courts.

The premier said drones would also be used to break up gatherings, flying over beaches, parks and other likely social hotspots and broadcasting messages about social distancing rules through speakers.

The premier is also seeking to pass laws that will allow police to compel someone who fails to comply with a self-isolation order to wear an electronic device and make it a criminal offence to purposefully cough or sneeze on a healthcare worker or emergency service worker if you have Covid-19.

WA has opted to tighten restriction at borders rather than inside the state.

Currently those entering must quarantine for 14 days, however it’s believed a harder board shutdown will be introduced.

Australian Capital Territory

In a statement, the Australian Capital Territory chief minister, Andrew Barr, said the ACT would also enforce the two-person limit.

In homes however, households are allowed up to two additional guests, as long as there is still at least four square metres per person indoors.

Barr has urged residents not to leave their home, except for certain essential reasons.

These are:

  • Shopping for what you need – food and necessary supplies

  • Medical or healthcare needs, including compassionate requirements

  • Exercise in compliance with the public gathering requirements

  • Work and study if you can’t work or learn remotely

ACT police officers would be issuing a warning in the first instance.

Guardian Australia understands that police would focus on enforcing the two-person gathering limits, not why people have left their homes.

Northern Territory

The Northern Territory announced it would not be enforcing the two-person gathering rules.

The chief minister, Michael Gunner, said it would stick to the 10-person limit for now but would bring in stricter laws if people did not follow social distancing rules.

“If the police need to go around enforcing a lower limit, they will, but we expect Territorians will do the right thing and save our police the time and hassle,” he said.

The Northern Territory now requires any non-essential travellers to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days. Remote communities also have protection in place to stop non-essential visitors from entering.

South Australia

So far South Australia has opted not to enforce new two-person-gathering laws.

Premier Steven Marshall has urged people to follow these rules, however on-the-spot fines of $1,000 will still only be applied to those who are gathering in groups larger than 10.

Social distancing rules must still be followed, and gatherings with less than 10 people indoors must abide by the one person per four square meters rules.

All people entering South Australia are required to undertake a 14-day quarantine.