A Whole Australian State Shut Down Because of a Takeout Pizza That Didn’t Exist

The Wall Street Journal:

An allegedly misleading story raised fears a virulent strain of Covid-19 was spreading via surfaces such as pizza boxes

SYDNEY—Soon after authorities in South Australia state were told a man had contracted Covid-19 after buying a takeout pizza from a restaurant with an infected employee, they ordered more than 1.7 million people to stay at home.

Schools were shut. Outdoor exercise was banned for six days. The state premier—worried by how quickly a virus outbreak had nearly spiraled out of control in neighboring Victoria state—asked the federal government to halt international flights into Adelaide, Australia’s fifth-biggest city by population.

Except, as it turned out, the man was an employee of the pizza restaurant, who likely contracted the virus from a co-worker. Health authorities say he misled them, sending them scrambling to find other customers who may have been infected.

“Had this person been truthful to the contact-tracing teams, we would not have gone into a six-day lockdown,” said Grant Stevens, the state’s top ranking police officer.

To authorities, a customer contracting Covid-19 simply by purchasing a pizza was an indication the virus could be spreading widely in the community. It also suggested a virulent strain of Covid-19 could be circulating, with people potentially being infected through contact with surfaces such as cardboard pizza boxes. Instead, the man had worked alongside his infected colleague in the kitchen at the Woodville Pizza Bar in suburban Adelaide, which narrowed the group who could have also become infected.

The episode illustrates how lawmakers who act aggressively and impose stringent restrictions on discovery of only a few cases can be wrong-footed. South Australia opted to lock down the state from midnight on Wednesday when it had confirmed 22 cases of local transmission, while awaiting test results of several more people suspected of having the virus.

The decision to put the state into lockdown with only hours’ notice was criticized by business leaders, who feared it would set a precedent that other Australian states might follow. Residents queued outside grocery stores in searing temperatures ahead of the restrictions coming into force.

“To say that I am fuming is an understatement.” — Steven Marshall, South Australian premier

“We all need to take health advice seriously,” Stephen Myatt, the South Australian regional head of national employer association Ai Group, said on Wednesday. “But decisions involving such extreme action as stay at home orders and widespread industry shutdown should be made with a greater understanding of industry ramifications.”

Other countries that aggressively imposed restrictions after a virus outbreak have found the strategy to be successful. In August, New Zealand told people to stay at home and closed nonessential businesses in its biggest city, Auckland, after detecting four locally transmitted cases. The pandemic restrictions were lifted early last month.

On Friday, South Australian Premier Steven Marshall said the lockdown would end sooner than originally planned, with restrictions eased from midnight Saturday and schools reopening Monday. Outdoor exercise was immediately permitted.

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