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Australia's biggest states hold off relaxing COVID-19 lockdowns

Sonali Paul

By Sonali Paul

MELBOURNE, May 9 (Reuters) - Australia's most populous states held back from easing COVID-19 restrictions on Saturday even as some states allowed small gatherings and got ready to open restaurants in line with the federal government's three-stage plan for reopening businesses.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday outlined plans to remove most curbs by July in a three-step process to get nearly 1 million people back to work, as the country has reined in new COVID-19 infections to less than 20 a day with strict lockdowns.

Australia's total deaths from COVID-19 remain just below 100.

The nation's capital, Canberra, and some states, on Saturday allowed people to start visiting each other again, with indoor and outdoor gatherings, including weddings, of up to 10 people allowed.

In South Australia, outdoor dining at restaurants and cafes will be allowed from Monday for up to 10 people, and in the Northern Territory, pubs, bars and restaurants will reopen next Friday.

However the states of New South Wales and Victoria, which make up more than half the country's population and nearly two-thirds of the country's COVID-19 cases, plan to outline plans for easing business restrictions only next week.

New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard said on Saturday nearly 300,000 people have been tested for coronavirus in the state, and while 3,000 of those had tested positive, 82% of them were already well again.

Ahead of Mother's Day on Sunday, Hazzard urged people not to let their guard down on social distancing and hand-washing when visiting their mothers.

"It's really tough to not be able to hug your mum or kiss your mum, but it would be the wisest course to not do that," Hazzard said.

Many nursing homes around the country started allowing limited visits this weekend, with some requiring temperature checks and proof of flu vaccinations before allowing visitors in with strict social distancing of 1.5 metres (4.9 ft).

While schools reopened last week in Western Australia and South Australia, the state of Queensland got ready to send kindergarten, year 1, 11 and 12 students back to school on Monday.

"I've got a very excited grade 1 student who can't wait to get to school in my household and I'm sure there are many, many other kids and mums eager for that return to school," Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles told reporters on Saturday.

Australia and New Zealand Banking Group, Australia's fourth largest bank, told staff it was preparing for a staged return to work, with no more than 35% of its people to be in the office at any one time.

New Zealand reported two new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, taking the country's total to 1,492 cases. There have been 21 deaths linked to the coronavirus. (Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)