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Melbourne freedom day: world’s most locked down city takes first cautious steps to reopening

·6-min read

Before the pandemic hit, Melbourne had topped the world’s most liveable city list seven consecutive times and was the fastest-growing urban centre in Australia.

But as major cities shrugged off lockdown restrictions with the arrival of the vaccine, Melbourne’s shops remained shuttered, residents were under a 9pm curfew, and the usually buzzing city earned a new title: the world’s longest lockdown.

Now, after 262 days, Melbourne will take its final steps out of stay-at-home orders on Friday, 22 October, battered but hopeful.

Related: ‘Kicking us when we’re down’: Melbourne entertainment venues vexed by ‘typo’ in Covid roadmap

Georgia Farry has been the band booker at Collingwood institution the Gasometer Hotel for four years. She says the past two have been a “rollercoaster of emotions”.

When shows were first cancelled, Farry felt an “initial sense of doom”.

“Then the most scary thing was … not just the announcement of another lockdown but what was to come after that – the painfully slow recovery,” she says.

“We’d open but in what capacity? We’re still working on rescheduling shows from a year ago.”

Now that the Victorian state government has released its final roadmap to reopening, which in large part excludes the arts and entertainment sector, Farry feels shut out.

“Everyone is celebrating about coming out of lockdown but we still feel left behind, venues have been left to bleed out,” she says.

The final stage of the Victorian roadmap caps venues at one person per 4 sq m, which has left many in the entertainment industry “scratching their heads”.

A Save our Scene petition calling for a staged return to reopening music venues at 100% capacity has gained more than 22,000 signatures online.

“I’m constantly trying to stay positive, and I am feeling this sense of community now more than ever before,” Farry says.

When a state of emergency was declared in Victoria on 16 March last year, it was slated to last four weeks. Six lockdowns later, the state of emergency is still in effect.

By 30 March, the state had 821 active Covid-19 cases, and Victoria entered a stage-three lockdown, with four essential reasons to leave the home: acquiring food and supplies, obtaining medical care, exercising and attending work or education.

Since then, more than 71,000 Victorians have acquired the virus, and more than 990 Victorians have died from Covid-19. Countless festivals, theatre shows and exhibitions have been cancelled or postponed.

The state’s population has dropped by 0.6% since the pandemic hit, largely due to the impact of international border closures on overseas migration. It’s Australia’s only state or territory to have seen its population shrink in this period.

The pandemic has made a lot of people lose hope about the future

Carmen Thain, retail worker

Melbourne’s lord mayor, Sally Capp, says pre-pandemic growth was driven by “work opportunities and the lifestyle” and that attraction will, eventually, return.

“That’s still very much here, it’s just a matter of getting going again,” she says, adding: “We’re bringing activity to the streets, creatives are rejuvenating our laneways, buskers are coming back, the city will be alive with people and music – it’s ready to spill out.

“Predictions show there’ll be a time of turbulence as we find our new rhythm, and new work habits form, but I’m not intimidated. I want to run straight at it and get to that new rhythm as soon as possible.”

The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimates that lockdowns have cost Victoria about $1bn (£545m) a week.

“We don’t know how long it’ll take for Victoria to recover from Covid-19, with uncertainty on when international borders will fully reopen,” its chief executive, Paul Guerra, tells Guardian Australia.

“We expect when we are at 90% double vaccinated, all businesses will be back to no density limits, our events back up and running, and borders open up to vaccinated tourists and international students.”

While Victoria’s unemployment rate is sitting at 4.8%, the underemployment rate is much higher, at 10% of the labour market. In September alone, Victoria’s employment rate fell by 123,000 people, while the participation rate dropped by 1.9%.

One casual retail worker, Carmen Thain, went from working full-time hours to having no shifts at all during lockdowns.

Thain has only been able to claim $450 a week from the federal government’s Covid disaster payment – slated to end once states reach 80% vaccination rates – because she can’t prove she would regularly work more than 20 hours a week.

“It’s been really financially stressful being on $450 a week … my rent and bills and food for myself and my pet takes up most of that money,” she says.

Thain has burnt through almost all her emergency savings on medical and vet bills, and worries that once the lockdown lifts and retail outlets reopen, contract workers will be prioritised over casual staff.

“It’s likely I will need to apply for Centrelink [welfare payments] to survive or find another job,” she says. “Since the pandemic my workplace has been in financial trouble and a lot of people have been made redundant.

“The pandemic has made a lot of people lose hope about the future … but also affording housing at the same time – people are losing most of their income.”

Lockdown fatigue, especially among the younger generation, may linger beyond the lifting of restrictions.

A year 12 student in the Melbourne suburb of Strathmore, Will Tozer, says the past two years have been rough and, while the prospect of freedom is exciting, right now he’s just worrying about upcoming exams.

“I’ve lacked motivation … if you’re not seeing your mates, if you’re not at school … my grades dropped and so did most of my other mates because of lockdown,” he says. “I would do the first three classes from my bed.”

Tozer says before five vaccinated people were permitted to gather outdoors, his relationships with friends were maintained over bike rides or three-hour PlayStation sessions.

“We had an unofficial graduation the other day and we just went to a park … it was so weird to hang out with multiple people,” he says. “We didn’t have a formal, couldn’t do sport, and sports are a big part of getting away from school – an escape.”

With restrictions finally easing, not all milestones are lost.

“Schoolies!” Tozer exclaims, citing the week-long beach holiday many Australian school leavers celebrate after their final exams. “I’m looking forward to that the most. Going down to the beach with my mates, and being able to travel again. Everyone’s going to realise … we’re out.”

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