The phones started ringing on Tuesday before Daniel Andrews had finished speaking. After six weeks in lockdown, the premier announced, the restrictions in regional Victoria had been relaxed. From midnight on Wednesday, people would be allowed to travel to other regional areas and dine at restaurants. Many chose to head to Beechworth, three hours north of Melbourne near the New South Wales border.
Hoteliers accepted bookings with a combination of relief and wariness. The historic town has been shut down three times this year, and had two false starts. Would this be a third?
At the Golden Heritage Motor Inn, on the northern edge of town, that wariness came second to a more pressing concern: did they have enough bedsheets?
“Dan said that he was going to give everyone plenty of notice when we would open up again,” says Darren Smith, who owns and operates the motel with his wife, Jo. “We have to put a linen order in, which we can only do once a week … we need to go get these supplies so we can open.”
The back stairs and deck have just been stained and the outdoor chairs are awaiting a second coat of paint. The sudden reopening has caught them by surprise, but they can’t afford to turn away bookings. They have dipped into their superannuation to survive and are waiting on an invoice from a local plumber, who has held off billing them until they are able to trade again. If they had not been able to open until late October, as suggested in the roadmap released by the state government two weeks ago, they would not have been able to afford to celebrate Christmas.
“We were kind of getting to the point where we were thinking well, what are we going to do for Christmas for our kids?” Darren Smith said. “We didn’t have the money to go and buy presents for them … Heavens, thinking about it makes me want to cry.”
Jo is vetting every new booking with care, trying to make sure she does not accidentally let a room to someone who has snuck through Melbourne’s so-called ‘ring of steel’. They are worried to learn that, when I left Melbourne with a work permit in hand on Wednesday, the checkpoint on the Hume freeway was unmanned.
“As much as we have struggled financially, we don’t want to put ourselves in that kind position to accept somebody who may have it,” she says. Darren is a chronic asthmatic; they can’t take any risks.
They support the state government’s health measures – Andrews attended Galen Catholic College in Wangaratta, along with many kids from Beechworth, and he’s reasonably popular around town – but query the fairness of the regional lockdown.
“If there was a massive Covid outbreak in country Victoria, there’s no way they would close Melbourne,” Smith says. “But there was an outbreak in Melbourne and they closed country Victoria.”
The Indigo shire, with Beechworth at its heart, has recorded just one case of Covid-19 since March.
‘We had to survive’
Wednesday afternoon is bright and sunny. It is the last week of term three. In an ordinary year, Beechworth would be a jumble of school uniforms, with teenagers crammed into the bakery and loitering outside the ice creamery. There would be at least three busloads of pensioners in town.
Instead, the historic streetscape has the feel of a television set cleared for filming. On Thursday morning, after restrictions have eased, a woman dances into Blynzz cafe on Ford Street and declares that she will be dining in. Cafe manager Amy Crimmin dances along and overcomes her objections to new rules requiring customers to sanitise their hands and sign in, saying: “You have got to love the process!”
Owner Lyn Ryder is whisking about with a spray bottle of disinfectant. It’s just gone 10am and she has already faced argumentative customers who object to the Covid-safe rules, but businesses face hefty fines if they’re breached.
“If we did not have the [coffee] beans off the shelf we would have closed,” Ryan says of the six-week lockdown. “If we didn’t have jobkeeper we would have closed as well.”
She is calculating how many staff she needs to keep up with the cleaning requirements, and how to justify that with just 10 customers allowed indoors. The council is considering blocking off streets on weekends to allow for more outdoor tables – but that would also require more staff.
A few shops along, Libby Schirmer and Kerry Haddock are working quickly to sew zippers on their last batch of skirts. Schirmer opened the clothing store, called Rebus, 15 years ago and always intended to start her own clothing line. This year, with money scarce and time abundant, she began sewing.
“There’s nothing like fear as a motivation,” she says. “When this started in March, all my winter stock had just arrived and I had no way to pay for it. I had to reduce it straight away. I just had to survive.”
Six shops and restaurants in the main street have closed permanently, and several others warn they could close by the end of the year. There are no franchises in town: every store is run by a sole trader. Many did not have websites, or the kind of Instagram following needed to sell designer homewares or European linen smocks. They need not just tourists, but monied tourists. They need Melbourne to open up.
The only people doing well, says Indi MP Helen Haines, are the farmers. After years of drought they have had a good winter. The tourism sector – 25% of the economy – is too rattled to open with a bang. “I don’t think you are going to see parties in the street,” she says.
Fire and pestilence
Beechworth has had a particularly ordinary year. On 3 January, Andrews declared a state of disaster and told visitors to stay away from north-east Victoria and east Gippsland.
Michael Ryan, the chef and owner of Provenance, the most lauded restaurant in the region, spent the day cancelling bookings.
“I have done that quite a few times this year,” he says.
The fires did not enter the Indigo shire, but the threat, and the smoke, lingered until early February, long enough to destroy the 2020 vintage. According to viticulturist Mark Walpole, smoke taint cost grape growers in the north-east $21.8m. Beechworth was among the areas hardest hit: only 6% of grapes were fit for harvest and the foregone retail value of the wine that won’t get made was $18m.
On 14 March, two days after the pandemic was declared, Beechworth held one of its biggest events of the year, Opera in the Alps.
“We were full – it was nuts, crazy,” says Darren Smith. From that Monday, mass gatherings were banned. “And so from then everything got cancelled,” Smith says. “We went from being fully booked to having no one in and about $40,000 worth of expenses and no income to pay for them.”
Then came the first lockdown. Restaurants were allowed to have dine-in patrons again from 1 June. The following six weeks – from the start of June to the end of the July school holidays, when the second Melbourne lockdown was announced – were the busiest Beechworth has been in years.
The tap shut off one week into July – and this time, the border with NSW was closed. About 15% of the Beechworth population was unable to get to work. Students who previously caught a bus to school in Albury now had to board. Health services were cut off. It took seven weeks to have the border bubble extended to 50km from the Murray River, to include towns like Beechworth and Wangaratta.
“We had people who ran businesses in Albury who were literally staying in hotels, paying all that money, so they could keep the business going,” says the mayor of Indigo shire council, Jenny O’Connor. “And their families were 15 minutes away across the border and they couldn’t see them, kids who were distressed.”
Both Ryan and the Smiths say they have “never been busier” than they were in June, but expect this reopening to be slower.
“I think that the next afterparty is going to be a bit more tepid with more of an awareness of what’s at risk,” Ryan says. “People will be a lot more tentative. But I think also people will be desperate to get out. Especially people from Melbourne because they’ve had a pretty shit time.”
A third wave – and third lockdown – would be “a real disaster”, as would a bad fire season, says Ryan.
“If we get bushfires this summer I think we’re definitely cooked,” he says.
Fire is O’Connor’s biggest concern, both economically and existentially. Her house overlooks the gorge and she spends summer watching for lightning. “The minute the gorge goes up, it’s a wick,” she says.
“Summer used to be such a gorgeous time of year, now I dread it … as soon as I know there’s a fire threat around, I’m really scared. Mind you, it doesn’t make me want to go live in the city.”
O’Connor says successive shutdowns have taken a toll on mental health, particularly among young people. Support structures – workmates, school mates, even the local football club – have been stripped away. The isolation, following so close from the stress of the fires, is too much.
“We’ve had suicides, not in Indigo but in surrounding shires,” O’Connor says. “You know them: 20-year-old boys, can’t play footy, can’t see their mates, their girlfriend breaks up with them, they have a shotgun. It’s devastating. Can’t even have a funeral. And then the impact on their friends. That’s the stuff that’s going on up here.”
Recovery from that kind of hurt will be slow. “There’s a bunch of things that are going on at a much deeper level than just getting the economy going,” she says.
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