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Sydney lawyer Greg Heathcote and investment banker David Rabinowitz had the same urgent order of business to start the week on Monday: a haircut.

It was the first day both men -- and 6 million other people -- could get their locks trimmed since Australia’s most populous city on Monday exited more than three months of lockdown. 

“It really is an essential service," Rabinowitz said as he sat in his barber’s chair. “This is the most important thing for the day." 

New South Wales state had been one of the world’s most prominent success stories in containing Covid-19, before it fell under some of its strictest stay-at-home orders as an outbreak of the delta variant hit in June. 

Residents of the state, who have received both doses of the covid vaccine, on Monday were allowed to again start visiting non-essential retail stores, pubs and gyms, with capacity limits. The government eased lockdown measures once 70% of people over age 16 were fully vaccinated.

More freedoms will be introduced later this month once the threshold crosses 80%, and there will be a further lifting for Dec. 1 that will include people who are not fully vaccinated. 

“There’s a long journey in front of our state," NSW state premier Dominic Perrottet told reporters. “There will be challenges that come our way but we have to open up and we have to get people back into work. We have to have businesses open for people’s mental health so they can provide and support and put food on the table."

The reopening, he added, “needs to be done in a measured and safe way."

Still, a sense of normalcy settled over the city as cafes abandoned their takeout setups and opened their doors to customers and commuter trains ferried workers to the central business district, though they remained far from peak capacity as rainy weather and an ongoing indoor mask mandate tempered a rush into downtown offices. 

“This is more like easing rather than freedom," Jennifer Westacott, Chief Executive Officer of the Business Council of Australia, told Bloomberg Television. “There is still quite a precaution, medical restrictions in place, mask wearing and so on." 

‘I Need to Stay Open Now’

Sydneysiders are testing their freedom despite NSW still reporting nearly 500 covid cases per day, as Australia continues to battle the delta variant outbreak. The country’s second-most populous city, Melbourne, remains under a strict stay-home mandate, and recorded more than 1,600 new cases on Monday, though Victoria state will also begin easing measures once it hits the 70% full inoculation threshold.

Still, Westacott said, business were well prepared to open, calling Monday “a day of great relief, of great optimism" that would be a boon for the economy going into the Christmas season.

“There is a huge effort to make sure that we do this safely and that we do this in a way that we can sustain that opening," she said, “because that’s what businesses say to me -- ‘I need to stay open now’ -- particularly small businesses don’t have the firepower to keep stopping and starting."

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