Bondi Beach
Beachgoers pack up and depart Bondi Beach following its closure after thousands of peopled flocked there in recent days, defying social distancing orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Sydney, Australia, March 21, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

Sydney police closed the world-famous Bondi Beach after thousands of people ignored physical-separation advice aimed at slowing the coronavirus outbreak.

Australia joined countries worldwide struggling to convince communities to heed health warnings, and authorities warned other beaches may be shut if the public continues to flout new guidelines.

The iconic sandy strip in Sydney's east drew huge crowds this week in warm weather, and nearby bars and restaurants were packed as usual. With infections in Australia mounting, the scenes triggered exasperation among politicians, who want citizens to keep 1.5 meters apart from each other. Outdoor gatherings have been capped at 500 people.

Images of families at the beach sharing public showers and toilets reflected a community "in complete denial", David Elliott, minister for police and emergency services in New South Wales state, told reporters at Bondi Beach. Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt called the situation "unacceptable."

In the UK, social-distancing efforts also failed to sufficiently stem infections and on Friday Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered pubs, restaurants and leisure centers to close. US President Donald Trump has also urged the younger generation to be more cautious to reduce the risk of infecting more vulnerable elderly.

Behind Australia's pleas to take the threat seriously lies the fear the country could follow nations like Italy, where coronavirus deaths surpass those even in China.

"Have a little look overseas and see what has happened," New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard told reporters. "The problem is just over the horizon, based on the numbers we're seeing."

Total infections in Australia have reached 874, the health department said Saturday. That's a jump of 165 in the previous 24 hours. Seven people have died.

Hazzard said he feared an "optimism bias" in Australia, particularly among younger citizens, even though the state has seen hundreds of infections in those aged between 20 and 50.

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus directed a specific message to the young this week.

"You are not invincible," he said. "Even if you don't get sick, the choices you make about where you go could be the difference between life and death for someone else."