By Renju Jose and Shashwat Awasthi
SYDNEY (Reuters) -Thousands of children returned to school in Sydney on Monday, putting an end to months of home learning as Australia's largest city eased more COVID-19 curbs, thanks to rising rates of vaccinations.
Masks are no longer mandatory in offices and larger groups are to be allowed in homes and outdoors after the state of New South Wales, home to Sydney, hit a double-dose inoculation rate of 80% at the weekend among those older than 16.
The latest in a series of planned relaxations is part of a shift in strategy by Australia's largest cities towards living with the virus, though officials have warned it will bring more COVID-19 cases.
"This is not over," state premier Dominic Perrottet said on Monday, urging people to stick to the remaining health rules. "There is a long journey to go."
Shops, gyms and pubs can allow more vaccinated users while nightclubs can re-open to serve drinks to seated patrons, and limits on the number of guests at weddings have been dropped. But all must follow social distancing measures.
Monday's return to the classroom has been staggered, as the youngest and eldest - those in kindergarten, year 1 and year 12 go back - with all the rest scheduled for next week.
New South Wales's 265 new cases were the lowest single-day rise in 10 weeks, far off September's high of 1,599.
The neighbouring state of Victoria reported 1,903 new cases, up from 1,838 the previous day. Its capital, Melbourne, is on track to begin exiting its lockdown on Friday, as full vaccination levels near 70%.
The city has spent about nine months under strict stay-home orders since March 2020, the world's longest such stint, say Australian media.
Authorities in northeastern Queensland, which is free of COVID-19, said quarantine-free travel for fully vaccinated residents from Sydney and Melbourne would begin from Dec. 17, when the state's full vaccination rate is expected to top 80%.
"That is good news for families to be reunited for Christmas," said the state's premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk.
The two cities have been hotspots of Australia's virus outbreak.
Fully vaccinated individuals can travel to Queensland when the level of inoculations stands at 70%, but must quarantine at home for two weeks.
As states begin to ease curbs, the federal government said it would roll out its vaccination passport for international travel from Tuesday, a crucial step in its plan to let citizens travel abroad from next month.
Last week, authorities said vaccinated international travellers, initially only citizens and permanent residents, would be allowed to enter Sydney from Nov. 1 https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/covid-19-infections-linger-near-record-levels-australias-victoria-2021-10-14 free of quarantine..
With a tally of 145,000 infections and 1,543 deaths, Australia's exposure to the coronavirus has been relatively low.
(Reporting by Renju Jose and Shashwat Awasthi; Editing by Jane Wardell and Clarence Fernandez)