Precisely because Melbourne’s second wave came much earlier than elsewhere, the city’s response has become a major point of comparison or contention as others face the same decision we did months ago: how to curb the spread of the new spike in cases.
After almost getting control of the spread alongside the rest of Australia in April and May, an outbreak of COVID in June spread across our state of Victoria and ultimately led to daily case numbers peaking at 725 on August 5. Although this maximum is small compared to the number of cases seen overseas, the Victorian Government acted quickly and intensely to mitigate the spike. When localised quarantines of hotspot suburbs failed to contain the spread, Melbourne moved into Lockdown 2.0, a stricter lockdown than the first: Melburnians endured compulsory face coverings, a curfew between 8pm and 5am, and the inability to travel more than 5km from home without a permit. Across the entire state of Victoria, people could only leave home for ‘one of four reasons’: shopping for necessities, medical care and caregiving, one hour of exercise, and essential work or study.
However, because the spread appears to have been contained, with no new locally acquired cases in the state since the start of November, Melbourne is tentatively lifting restrictions on the path to a ‘COVID-Normal’. Melburnians have had cause to celebrate: the 5km travel limit grew to 25km, before being dropped entirely; restaurants and cultural spaces are opening up again with patron restrictions; and the easing of limits on household visitors has allowed people to see their loved ones in person again.
It’s been a difficult four months – in addition to the general lockdown malaise, Victoria has seen 819 deaths from the virus, and it is believed that at least 31,000 jobs have been lost during lockdown. And now, as Melburnians re-emerge from their homes and begin venturing out again, we’re finding that the city we’re returning to doesn’t look the same. COVID-19 won’t be going away, with a vaccine still in development, and the lasting impacts and anxieties from Melbourne’s dual lockdowns have led to a different lifestyle than what the bustling city is used to. So, what is Melbourne doing to cope with the effects of COVID moving forward?
‘Staying Apart Keeps Us Together’: The Community Impact of Lockdown
Melburnians love the city centre, even those who perhaps don’t go there that often […] [But] Melbourne is also not just the centre— and as the metropolis starts to open up again I think its denizens are also appreciating the value of their localities and communities in a new light.
– PROFESSOR ANDREW MAY, LECTURER IN AUSTRALIAN HISTORYAT THE UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE.
Like most cities around the world, one of the most defining features of Melbourne’s time in lockdown has been the social isolation. As minimising contact with others is the most effective way to slow the spread of COVID, the Victorian Government chose to limit social visits in the home; at first, this meant restricting almost any visits, though eventually people living alone could nominate a single visitor to prevent complete isolation. As community transmission rates began to drop, the increasing level of safety allowed some of our social lives to resume in the public sphere – but the Government nevertheless maintained a high level of concern around gatherings in houses. ‘Your home is the most dangerous place for the spread of this virus,’ warned Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews when announcing the first change in household visitor restrictions. ‘When you let your guard down, this virus will take advantage of you.’
Rather than enforce a ‘bubble’ model as used overseas, Andrews expressed a preference for a simpler set of restrictions for Melbourne. From October 28, two visitors were allowed per day, with neither the hosts nor visitors allowed to visit elsewhere that day. Visitation suddenly required a lot of planning, and it became common for family members and housemates to negotiate who had control of each precious visit, swapping out who got to see their friends on what day.
However, since there is a lower risk of spreading COVID while outdoors, many people have avoided these indoor socialising limitations by meeting in public spaces, such as parks and beaches. As these outdoor gatherings had to occur within 25 kilometres of each person’s home, local media site The Age created a useful Venn Diagram website to help loved ones determine where their travel limits overlapped. This led to Melburnians rediscovering their local areas – a newfound appreciation that is sure to inform how we socialise for years to come.
Now, as restrictions continue to lift, the household visitor limits have shifted slightly: as of this week, every house can have up to 15 visitors from any number of other households each day. People are still quite cautious, with many holding back from visiting too many people at once – especially with the knowledge that another outbreak would require quickly informing contact tracers about who you were visiting and on what day. But this careful tracking is something we’re well-practiced in. For those that are more wary, there’s still Zoom, which many people – especially young people – continue to use to spend time together while avoiding public transport.
As we approach the end of the year, many are arranging plans for the holiday season, adapting the usual family gatherings to fit restrictions by either organising several smaller events, rather than a big party, or gathering in the outdoor spaces they have discovered. We still aren’t quite at the stage where we can hug everyone we love, but home visits are resuming with caution, and people continue to venture out to meet in parks or at the newly-reopened restaurants and cultural venues.
Post-COVID Entertainment in the Cultural Capital
Melbourne is renowned for its vibrant culture, arts, and entertainment industries, loved by locals and visitors alike. But the arts sector was one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic, with venue closures, staff layoffs, and the exclusion of many workers from the federal government’s JobKeeper scheme decimating the industry that Melbourne holds at the core of its identity. The city’s social calendar was marked by hopeful delays, often followed by disappointing cancellations – but individuals and businesses have proven their ability to react quickly in adapting to the difficult circumstances of lockdown.
Within the realm of hospitality, the quintessential restaurants, bars, or cafes as we knew them were shaken to their core – with strict guidelines coming to the forefront of responsibilities for any business owner who was allowed to remain open. Businesses serving food and drinks operated solely on takeaway orders, with many connecting with delivery apps and relying on pick-up orders to stay afloat. While there were many small businesses that unfortunately succumbed to economic pressures, Melbourne saw some new businesses rise to the occasion – for example, an online pantry known as Co/Lab came into existence, stocking a seemingly endless array of gourmet goods that could be delivered straight to our doors.
As we speak, businesses in hospitality are re-opening for in-house dining for the first time since the middle of the year, albeit to strict guidelines. Some of the most noteworthy include limits to patrons based on venue size, maintaining a 1.5 metre distance at all times, and having customers sign in on entry for the purposes of contact tracing. On October 2, the Victorian Government announced the Licensed Hospitality Venue Fund, through which cafes, restaurants, and pubs can apply for a grant between $15,000 and $30,000 to help them navigate the labyrinth of COVID-19 restrictions, hopefully easing the city back into its regular restaurant scene.
On the arts and culture front, key Melbourne institutions such as Museums Victoria, the IMAX cinema, and the National Gallery of Victoria also took a hit. Although their doors were shut to the public for the majority of the year, each took to the digital sphere to engage with their audiences. The general manager of IMAX, Richard Morrison, tells Casper Magazine that they were able to organise free streaming links of some of their documentaries during the lockdown period. Morrison added, ‘We also continued to reach our audience through our social media channels and e-news, including sharing behind the scenes videos and Instagram Stories about our projection booth to give our fans insight into our systems and our IMAX 1570 projector which they loved.’
Similarly, Museums Victoria took advantage of the accessibility of digital exhibitions, sharing their collections online for an international audience. According to Linda Sproul, the director of exhibitions and audience experiences for Museums Victoria, the introduction of the Museum at Home program ‘enabled the community to connect, explore and learn more from their favourite museums every day. […] Since beginning, it has reached over 16.3 million people.’
When it comes to entertainment, live events were cancelled from April onwards this year, where a regular schedule for Melbourne would’ve seen multiple live gigs and events on each and every night of the week. With Melburnians yearning for live music from the beginning of the lockdown, Melbourne-based events agencies and artists took to the internet to bring popular artists directly to our screens. The most prolific live stream event of them all, Isolaid, was a weekly online music festival where artists would perform 20-minute sets via their Instagram accounts, helping musicians to find a place to perform during the pandemic. It also served as a means of music entertainment for anyone who tuned in.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged that the commercial arts and entertainment sector would be one of the first to be impacted by COVID-19 and, more importantly, that it would also be one of the last to recover from social distancing restrictions. To mitigate the impact, the Federal Government announced a $250 million grant aimed at reviving our state’s creative economy as a part of the JobMaker scheme, focussing in particular on allowing the industry’s employees to return to work. However, although it was noted as part of the announcement that the program’s grants and loans would be rolled out over the next 12 months, we are yet to see any major implementation. As of the end of November, only a fifth of the $250 million arts rescue package has been rolled out.
Nevertheless, with the easing of restrictions this month, we are slowly but surely starting to see the return of gigs and events in Australia’s cultural capital. As we approach the end of the year, Melburnians are patiently awaiting the rescheduling of events that were delayed or cancelled, holding onto the hope for a normal 2021 events calendar.
Anxiety and Excitement in the Retail Sphere
Just as visitors to our cultural attractions will find limited capacities, booking systems, and contact tracing becoming the norm, customers in the shopping precincts of Melbourne are having to adapt to COVID-safe procedures, slowing the shopping experience even as the retail industry gears up for Christmas. Shops reopened to the public after a long period of online-only retail at the end of October, and Melburnians reacted with great pent-up enthusiasm: hundreds of people lined up for the midnight re-opening of retailers like Kmart, and in the following weeks, shoppers revelled in the return of retail therapy.
But things aren’t as simple as we remembered. Popping in to grab a couple of things – a common pre-COVID experience – is no longer the reality for Melburnians as we contend with patron limits and QR code contact tracing, extending the length of any visit. For many people, online trading was restrictive owing to the need to see and feel products in real life – but even this is limited in-person, as we all touch as few things as possible for fear of spreading or catching the virus. Shoppers are advised to touch only what they intend to buy, while hand sanitiser and disinfecting wipes are commonplace for staff and patrons alike. The retail experience has been transformed by the pandemic, paradoxically keeping customers in shops longer as we adapt to safety guidelines.
It was interesting, observing the staff and customers interact – quite an eye-opening experience, as I hadn't actually experienced collective anxiety until this point, though I must admit it did rub off on me a little. [...] Staff and customers ranged from overly-cautious to overly-excited, with many occupying the exhausted middle ground.
- CASPER MAGAZINE FOUNDER AND EIC MILLA MARIA.
However, Melburnians have largely taken the inconveniences of health protocols in stride. Long used to wearing face masks and carrying hand sanitiser, residents are keener than ever to get back to normal after such a long lockdown period. The emerging trend of buying local – made necessary by the five-kilometre movement radius – seems to have become a mainstay for many Melburnians and continues to be encouraged as the Victorian economy struggles towards recovery.
Supporting local businesses became a mantra throughout lockdown, one which continues to hold significance as we emerge on the other side. As our founder Milla Maria discovered in her forays into the retail sphere, ‘there’s the lingering pressure to purchase to keep the local economy ticking’, and though all Victorians have experienced a financial slump to some degree, we believe that Christmas is the perfect opportunity to keep helping small businesses stay afloat.
The situation in Melbourne seems to be improving and we’re all cautiously optimistic – but as Professor Andrew May emphasises, ‘[W]e don’t know whether our current easing of lockdown is a real or a Pyrrhic victory. Will our caution and constraint be rewarded?’ On November 24, we achieved zero active cases for the first time since February 29, and as of today, Melbourne has had zero new cases for 28 days – the threshold for elimination. Though the strict lockdown strategy was heavily criticised by some, it appears to have paid off – but it may be a long time before the anxiety over the chances of another outbreak dissipates. In the meantime, lockdown was an opportunity for Melburnians to discover new ways of connecting with people, as well as a wide range of new local places and businesses, and now we can enjoy the pay-off – Christmas with our loved ones in a (mostly) normal capacity.