Growing calls to reopen for regional Victorians living in lockdown with no active cases
Hundreds of thousands of Victorians across the state are living in coronavirus-free zones.
But for now, they’re still subjected to a tough stage 3 lockdown.
Pub owner Mitch Duncan, who runs The Farmers Arms Hotel in Daylesford, is one of them.
“The frustrating part that a lot of people don’t understand is that if you have no cases, why can’t you open up?” he said.
His local government area (LGA) of Hepburn, with a population of about 15,000, has no active cases of COVID-19.
The area has recorded two cases since the start of the pandemic.
He said he and other business owners could not see the sense in remaining closed when the risk was low locally.
“Common sense would suggest that any region, town or area that doesn’t have any active cases should be allowed to be able to fully open,” he said.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said decisions would be made on science, data and modelling, but that regional Victoria was “on the cusp” of easing restrictions.
“That community that has got no cases, they are jealously guarding that. There’s a point of pride for those communities,” he said yesterday.
“I have a unique understanding of how frustrating it is for those who don’t have much — or any — virus, and the fact that rules apply to them.”
More than 600,00 people across 30 LGAs
There are more than 676,000 people living in regional and rural Victoria in LGAs with no active cases.
There are 30 LGAs without a single active infection, ranging from Mildura in the north-west to the Alpine region in the north-east; Glenelg in the south-west and Wellington in the south-east.
Several LGAs bordering NSW and South Australia also have no active cases, while some of the state’s regional centres, like Bendigo and Shepparton, have seen their cases dwindle to single figures.
Bendigo Health chief executive Peter Faulkner said he would like restrictions to be eased — although caution was required, he had confidence in the local contact-tracing teams.
Ballarat, which has had just shy of 60 cases in total, is now at zero.
Geelong in the west and Latrobe in the east are dealing with cases in the low teens, while Colac battles a recent outbreak that has resulted in 29 active cases.
The Premier was asked yesterday why regions with no cases, such as Mildura, were being lumped in the same basket as Colac, more than 500 kilometres away.
Mr Andrews said that would involve divvying up the state into lots of different zones, drawing boundaries and having them policed by checkpoints.
The Premier stressed it could be as early as next week that Regional Victoria would meet the thresholds needed to trigger an easing of restrictions.
That includes getting to an average of under five new daily cases over a two-week period, and fewer than five “mystery” cases, where disease detectives couldn’t track the source of transmission.
As of yesterday, regional Victoria had a rolling average of 4.5 new daily cases, and eight mystery cases.
Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng said there was not a “hard and fast rule” about the dates.
Health officials would need to consider a range of factors, like if there was a spike in recent days, if the cases are linked and the outbreak setting.
“The date, I’d say, is sort of like a due date for a pregnancy. Only 5 per cent of babies are born on the actual due date, and there’s a range before and after,” Professor Cheng said.
Country areas have shown resilience
Shannon Dube, member manager at Business Wodonga, said the lockdowns had been emotional in her community, with the added complexity in being located on the border with NSW.
“Our businesses have been really resilient, and doing the absolute best they can. But unfortunately, it’s just been extremely difficult,” she said.
“Definitely, there is some sense of frustration, [in that] the cases have been quite low.
“We do recognise the lines do have to be drawn, however, there is definitely frustration around making sure that everyone is treated equally when things aren’t always equal.”
Ms Dube said the length of the restrictions and multiple rule changes had taken their toll, but was heartened to see the community coming together to develop an e-commerce platform and adapt.
She said she had seen businesses “do everything they possibly can to stay safe, to give that confidence”.
“Obviously they’re looking forward to opening up and getting back to some sense of retail and business norm,” she said.
“Everyone is extremely eager to have that happen.”
A survey released yesterday revealed some insights into how Victorian businesses viewed the Government’s roadmaps for reopening, suggesting regional businesses were perhaps more optimistic.
The survey was conducted by Glow Research for marketing company Sensis, and 17 per cent of the 400 small to medium businesses surveyed were in regional areas.
Nearly one in four, or 19 per cent, of businesses in Melbourne said they would take more than a year to return a profit, compared to just 4 per cent in the regions.
Sensis CEO John Allan said there was also a “big difference” between the city and the country when asked how difficult it would be for their businesses to survive with the new roadmaps.
Forty-three per cent of the regional businesses said there would be “no impact” on their survival, compared to about a quarter of Melbourne businesses.
Craving clarity, but optimistic overall
Mr Duncan said he still needed more clarity on what “predominantly outdoor dining” means for his business as restrictions ease.
“It’s still ambiguous,” he said.
“I think that’s the frustrating part. I’m really still positive about the outcome. We will get there.”
He said he trusted the health experts advising the Government, but he hoped for some new approaches.
Areas still battling outbreaks could be ringfenced, and there could be harsh penalties for crossing infected postcodes, he suggested.
“If it doesn’t work, just be smart enough to close it down and change direction,” he said.
The tourist town often relies on Melburnians taking a weekend away, and when restrictions initially eased a few months ago, “it was like the floodgates are open — the business can back absolutely full throttle,” Mr Duncan said.
But he said Daylesford had enjoyed strong business from non-city visitors, from Gippsland, Geelong and Bendigo, and he was looking forward to welcoming them back.
During the shutdown, his chefs were trying out new dishes at home, and he had renovated the hotel and focused on business ventures outside the hospitality industry.
“It’s actually been OK for us to be honest. Not doom and gloom by any stretch,” he said.
“You have to look on the bright side of it and then find the good.”