It was the lie that launched a lockdown — and it hinged on a pizza joint.
After dozens of coronavirus cases emerged this week in the state of South Australia, the government quickly clamped down, issuing onerous stay-at-home orders. Masks were mandatory. Restaurants, cafes, pubs and retails stores were closed, along with schools.
But officials abruptly reversed course two days later, saying Friday that the infected individual had “deliberately misled” a contact-tracing team in the city of Adelaide. It all came down to his relationship with a pizza shop.
It turned out that the person at the Woodville Pizza Bar wasn’t a customer, as he had told contact tracers, but a part-time employee and a close contact of another coronavirus patient who also worked at the restaurant. That mattered because health officials initially feared that the newly infected man had contracted the virus from only a brief exposure, which indicated a virulent strain.
South Australia’s top official, Steven Marshall, told reporters Friday that given the new information, the state’s lockdown would end three days earlier than planned.
“To say that I am fuming about the actions of this individual is an absolute understatement,” he said.
Schools, restaurants and gyms were set to reopen, but new rules include a cap of 50 people at funerals and a ban on dancing at weddings. Marshall said that contact tracers still needed “breathing space” to continue investigating the source of the outbreak, the state’s most severe in months.
Contact tracing is considered a vital tool for helping to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Places like South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have combined technology and data with old-fashioned detective work to track down people who may have crossed paths with an infected person.
Such systems can fall apart, though, when governments fail to support citizens through onerous quarantines. Or, in this case, when the person being traced misleads the tracers.
After a woman tested positive for the coronavirus at an Adelaide hospital, health officials found that she had contracted it from her daughter, a cleaner at a downtown hotel being used to quarantine Australians returning from abroad, the country’s national broadcaster reported Friday. The cluster later expanded to include two security guards at the hotel, one of whom worked part-time at the Woodville Pizza Bar.
The man who lied to contact tracers said he had bought takeout from the restaurant, declining to tell them that he was a close contact of one of the infected guards.
“That clearly changes the circumstances, and had this person been truthful to the contact-tracing teams, we would not have gone into a six-day lockdown,” Grant Stevens, South Australia’s police commissioner, told reporters Friday.
Another consequence, he said, was that police were now rushing to identify and locate the man’s associates — a process that would not have been necessary if he had told the truth in the first place.
The man will not face a penalty because there is no legal mechanism to prosecute him, Stevens said. Police have not said anything about why he might have chosen to mislead the contact tracers.
The neighboring state of Victoria said Friday that it had decided to close its border with South Australia, but that the rule would not apply to truck drivers or emergency workers.
Melbourne, Victoria’s capital, lifted one of the world’s longest lockdowns in late October. The city said Friday that it planned to allow inbound international flights to resume starting Dec. 7, with an initial cap of 160 passengers per day.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.