11/27/2020 16:23 EST | Updated 11/27/2020 16:26 EST

At A Sports Event With 50,000 Fans, I Didn't Have A Worry In The World

My region of Australia has been considered COVID-free for months. Meanwhile, my family in Canada faces a second wave.

Steve Harris
The writer takes a selfie at the 2020 National Rugby League State of Origin contest on Nov. 18, 2020.

Three of my mates and I had our phones out, digital tickets waiting to be scanned, as we made our way through a flood of maroon and blue jerseys to Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Australia. Nobody was social distancing, and very few people in the crowd of thousands wore the kind of protective gear that had become commonplace amid the global pandemic. We didn’t have a worry in the world.

We noticed they were giving out free masks at the entrance. We each put one on, took a photo in front of the stadium, and crammed them straight into our pockets. It was the first time I had worn a mask this year, and it only lasted 10 seconds. 

Steve Harris
The writer and his mates don masks at the entrance of Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.

Like nearly 50,000 other fans, we were there for the deciding match in the best two of three series in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) State of Origin contest — the Queensland Maroons versus our bitter rivals, the New South Wales Blues. Just days earlier, the already minimal restrictions in the Australian state of Queensland had eased to allow full capacity at the stadium, making the Nov. 18, 2020 match one of the largest live sporting events to be held since the pandemic started. 

Being there, seeing those crowds, you couldn’t help but marvel. Thousands of people packed shoulder to shoulder, enjoying a cold drink, while cheering on the home team. When our team scored, we cheered and high fived everyone around us. That night we not only celebrated victory as Queenslanders (20-14!), but how lucky we were to live in a place that has been relatively free of COVID-19, and restrictions, since the pandemic began.

Meanwhile, my friends and entire family living in Canada were struggling through a second wave of COVID-19 infections, with more restrictions and lockdowns looming. 

Steve Harris
The NRL State of Origin contest brought together nearly 50,000 fans.

I grew up in Burlington, Ont., and spent my summers teaching water skiing at camps and resorts in Muskoka. In 2006, I decided to follow my dream of becoming a professional water skier. I took a leave of absence from my career as a high-school teacher, packed my bags and moved to Australia. There, I landed my dream job performing in water ski shows at Sea World on the Gold Coast. 

When I moved to Australia permanently in 2012, I promised myself that I would visit home in Canada at least once every 12 months. I had to cancel my 2019 trip, and we all know how 2020 turned out. At the time of this writing, I haven’t been able to hug my family for 800 days.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, I monitored new coronavirus cases overseas with concern for my loved ones back home. Canada and Australia tracked along quite evenly, at first. By Easter in Canada, it was clear there were going to be differences. Cases in Canada appeared to be on the rise while cases in Australia decreased.

Steve Harris
Few people wore masks or social distanced inside the sporting event.

When the world shut down, the island of Australia found itself isolated. Australian cases, mostly originating from cruise ships, were slowly brought under control and reduced. Queensland saw a lockdown and some restrictions through Easter, with schools shifting to online learning for about six weeks.

Like in Canada, most people in Queensland responded by taking the restrictions seriously. We did our part practicing social distancing, using hand sanitizer and limiting the number of people at indoor and outdoor events. Many businesses closed and went virtual, numbers of patrons allowed in restaurants were limited, and sporting events were cancelled. The restrictions and border closures were a major blow to tourism, one of Queensland’s biggest industries. 

Nonetheless, the results were positive: the restrictions flattened the curve through April and May. 

I find that Australia’s lockdowns in particular have helped us get where we are.

Unlike Canada and the U.S., many states in Australia closed their state borders, restricting travel across the country. That meant when New South Wales and Victoria experienced second waves of COVID-19 and more strict lockdown measures, those of us here in Queensland still felt relatively safe. 

As of this writing, Queensland has had a total of 1,196 cases and six deaths. Of the current 16 active cases in our state, all are travellers returning from overseas and in strict quarantine. Currently we have had more than 70 days in a row without community transmission

For me living and working here as a high-school teacher, I can honestly say that life feels pretty normal. I can go to bars and restaurants with friends. I still water ski in the show at Sea World on weekends in front of a crowd of thousands. At school, my students can play sports against other schools and participate in normal school life. I even play hockey twice a week. (Yes, there is hockey in Australia!)

Steve Harris
The crowd outside Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium.

I find that Australia’s lockdowns in particular have helped us get where we are. 

For example, the entire state of Victoria and the City of Melbourne were in lockdown for more than 15 weeks after experiencing a second wave. Police and military enforced stringent isolation measures and border closures. But 30 days after coming out of lockdown, the state and city are now considered COVID-free

To some, the lockdown in Victoria may have seemed harsh, but you can’t question the outcome. For Canada to have more success it would seem that stricter lockdown measures are necessary, with people and law enforcement stepping in to support the government decisions. 

Let’s be clear, things across Australia are far from perfect. We have had over 29,000 cases and over 900 deaths, with the majority in the state of Victoria. People have lost jobs. People in other states have been in lockdown lasting more than six weeks. The economy is struggling. All Canadians have experienced a version of this.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. The past two weeks have been especially exciting, with scientists and companies around the world announcing the development of effective vaccines. Until that becomes a reality, I will miss my family and friends. I can’t wait to be home again.

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