May 15, 2020 / 7:04 AM / 16 days ago

Australia's outback territory toasts its first pub beer after virus shutdown

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The chief minister of Australia’s outback Northern Territory was one of the first people in the country to pour a beer in public in weeks as the region’s pubs opened their doors on Friday after an almost two-month coronavirus shutdown.

“I think I’ve earned one and I think a lot of Territorians out there have earned a beer as well,” Michael Gunner told reporters as he pulled a beer behind the bar of the Cavenagh Hotel in Darwin just as the clock struck midday, the official reopening hour.

“It’s been 53 days and I think you’ve all deserved that beer,” said Gunner, who earlier this week bragged of a truck convoy carrying 175,000 litres of beer up the long highway north in preparation for the big day.

Publicans re-hired staff who were laid off when the country went into lockdown in March and set up extra seats for an expected rush to watering holes in the territory made famous by the movie “Crocodile Dundee”.

Australia is following a three-step plan out of social distancing measures, but each state and territory is moving at their own pace.

The sparsely populated Northern Territory, which has had fewer than 30 COVID-19 cases and no deaths among its 250,000 residents, was the first to fully reopen bars and pubs, albeit with restrictions including a two-hour time limit for patrons who must be seated at spaced-out tables.

The NT News, a daily newspaper known for its irreverence, ran a live blog on the territory’s “historic day” and poked fun at the rest of the country with the front page headline “Screw you we’re having a brew”.

At the Berry Spring Tavern, about 50 kilometres (31 miles) southwest of Darwin, owner Ian Sloan raced to finish a kitchen renovation and set up extra furniture in the car park so he would not have to turn anybody away.

“It’s quite restrictive but at least it’s the first stage and people can see light at the end of the tunnel,” Sloan told Reuters by telephone.

Sloan planned to enforce the two-hour time limit by issuing colour-coded wristbands when patrons entered, and comply with a rule that everyone who drinks must eat by putting on a free barbecue. Those rules are in place until June 5.

Sloan said he planned to take back some of the 22 staff he let go in March when the federal government ordered the closure of non-essential public spaces, but was cautious given the closure of state and national borders.

“If there’s not going to be tourists around this year, hopefully Territorians get out there and have a look around in their own backyard,” he said.

Reporting by Byron Kaye and Colin Packham; editing by Jane Wardell

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