Events cancelled, holidays scrapped as Melbourne lockdown hits regional businesses hard

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Organisers of events across regional Victoria have begun the process of postponing or cancelling their events — some for the second year in a row — due to coronavirus restrictions and the extended lockdown in Melbourne.

Rutherglen’s Winery Walkabout and Heathcote on Show — two events set to attract thousands of people to regional Victoria over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend — have already fallen victim to the tightened restrictions.

Meanwhile, businesses just outside the virtual border between metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria are questioning whether it’s worth opening at all.

Enforcement left to owners, staff

Woodend sits less than an hour’s drive north-west of Melbourne and is an idyllic place for a day’s trip into the leafy Macedon Ranges where day spas, pubs and eateries in nearby Kyneton are popular.

At Woodend’s Holgate Brewhouse, licensee and venue manager Colin Mullens said it was difficult to ask regional Victorian hospitality workers to ensure complacent people were scanning their QR codes.

“You get a sort of backlash, the customers become quite angry and upset and then we’re putting staff who are just trying to do their job through a situation they don’t want to be in,” he said.

The brewery kept its bottle shop and takeaway service open during lockdown, but business hasn’t been easy.

“Compared to the overheads that we’ve got coming in every day, it just doesn’t outweigh the financial burden that has been taken on by the business,” Mr Mullens said.

The business will reduce the working hours of its casual staff while restrictions on seated guests remain in place.

Mr Mullens said the loss of trade over the June long weekend would be a huge blow to the area’s businesses.

“The Queen’s Birthday long weekend is one of the quite busy times for Woodend — it’s as busy as Easter and Christmas,” he said.

“It’s a weekend that Woodend really capitalises on and a lot of people come into the area but … we’re going to be losing a lot of revenue and trade.”

Freedoms aren’t there for everyone

From midnight tonight, regional Victorian hospitality venues can do seated service only, with up to 50 patrons, based on density requirements.

Bendigo Tourism chair and restaurant owner Finn Vedelsby said it would mean some venues would not be able to bring back all of their staff.

“I’m disappointed we can’t go to full capacity, because that’s the only way we can really move forward,” he said.

Mr Vedelsby said it was vital for residents to support local businesses where they could.

“The challenge is for our casual staff who are living week to week — if we’ve got limited ability to open then they will lose shifts,” he said.

Events cancelled — again

Meanwhile, many events that were set to be held on the June long weekend have been put on hold, with some events being postponed or cancelled for a second or third time.

In north-east Victoria about 12,000 people were expected to descend on Rutherglen for the region’s Winery Walkabout, which last year was held online due to restrictions.

Winemakers Rutherglen executive officer Annalee Nolan said the decision was made to protect the safety of participants and the local community.

“I don’t think this time last year we thought we would be facing the same challenges again with hosting the event 12 months on, but like everybody in the same situation we’re just doing what we can to make the best of it,” she said.

Ms Nolan said plans were already underway to reschedule the event for July, to give the region a much-needed boost after last year’s bushfires and multiple shutdowns.

“We hope that by July we’re in a much better position and everybody sticks with us,” she said.

“Last year the event online was a great success but there’s nothing like being able to see everybody together.”

For some events the last straw was the prevention of people from Greater Melbourne being able to visit regional Victoria for the long weekend.

In Heathcote, the town’s wine and food show, Heathcote on Show, has been cancelled with organisers saying it was too risky for the event to go ahead.

The event usually attracts 7,000 to the town, about 90 minutes’ north of Melbourne, bringing $1.5 million into the local economy.

Heathcote Tourism and Development president Peter Maine said the community depended on visitors from Melbourne.

“If Melbourne is closed and that population doesn’t have the ability to move freely the knock-on impact is significant,” he said.

“Heathcote survives principally on the movement of traffic between Melbourne and northern Victoria and southern New South Wales.”

Mr Maine said it was extremely disappointing that the event would not go ahead for a second year. But, he said, the requirements necessary for it to proceed, including checking identification of every patron, were too great.

“When you’re trying to organise an event — where if you take the 2019 stats, where we had 7,000 people across the region over the three days — it’s almost an impossibility for people to actually undertake that process,” he said.

Big loss for Ballarat, basketballers

The cancellation of a junior basketball competition due to be held over the long weekend will leave a $4.5 million dent in Ballarat’s economy for the second year in a row.

Basketball Ballarat CEO Neville Ivey said he was forced to cancel the annual junior tournament, which attracts more than 7,000 people from across the state, because of the ongoing  lockdown in Melbourne.

He said cancelling the event was not only a blow to the state’s young basketball players but it hurt the wider Ballarat community.

“We’re talking about all the accommodation that have had cancellations now, all the cafes, restaurants and hotels that would have been full over that three-day tournament,” he said.

Ballarat Mayor Daniel Moloney said losing the event, one of the city’s biggest annual events, over consecutive years was very concerning.

“302 teams would have been coming to Ballarat, and that would have injected about $4.5 million into the local economy, so that’s a huge loss,” cr Moloney said.

“It’s been a guaranteed win in the past, the problem though is that this is now two years in a row that we’ve lost this important $4.5 million injection.”

Third time unlucky for softballers

The ban on Melbourne residents entering regional Victoria also forced the postponement of the Softball Victoria Masters Championships, set to be held next weekend in Shepparton.

Softball Victoria’s state operations manager, Cheryl Waye, said they had been expecting 49 teams to compete in the event, including a team from Tasmania.

“If you average that out at about 20 a team, nearly 1,000 people, plus staff would have been travelling to Shepparton,” she said.

Ms Waye said this was the third time the event had had to be moved because of coronavirus restrictions, but discussions were continuing to sort out a new date for the event.

“I am disappointed for our members, I’m also disappointed for the Shepparton community — they look after us every time we travel there and we hope that one day soon we’ll be able to travel again,” she said.

Kelpie Muster curtailed

In western Victoria, Casterton’s famous Kelpie Muster has been curtailed by COVID-19 for the second year running.

The event — which seeks to assert the small country town’s place as the birthplace of Australia’s favourite working dog — has more than doubled tourist numbers in the town since 2018.

Organisers said they were not willing to risk hosting the event next weekend, despite the prospect of eased restrictions.

“With the festival on Saturday, and of course the working dog auction on the Sunday, we’ve had to pull up stumps and the festival is totally cancelled in its current form,” Casterton Kelpie Association’s Karen Stephens said.

The famed kelpie auction will be held online for the first time in 2021, a far cry from its origins on the back of an old farm ute.

Ms Stephens said the cancellation was aimed at keeping more than just the town of Casterton safe.

“We know that a lot of people stay in Mount Gambier and Penola, and travel across each day, and they stay in Portland and Hamilton,” she said.

“It’s a regional event, and that impacts not just on our Casterton community, but on the entire regional community.”

A city back on edge

In Bendigo, restrictions may be about to be relaxed, but Victoria’s third-largest regional city is once again on edge after viral fragments of COVID-19 were detected in wastewater at Bendigo and Axedale catchments.

Bendigo Health chief executive Peter Faulkner said retesting was being carried out on close contacts of a COVID-positive person from Melbourne who visited the region last month, leading the local health authority to call for a testing blitz of suspected cases.

“The purpose is to provide reassurance that what we’re seeing in the wastewater is the shedding of the virus of the case which was in Bendigo and Axedale in the past,” he said.

Additional reporting by Tyrone Dalton, Daniel Miles and James Findlay.

By Fiona Parker, Sarah Lawrence, Courtney Howe and Rhiannon Stevens (Original ABC Article)