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Melbourne’s two weeks of lockdown will ease on Thursday night with cafes, shops and schools to reopen but big business has warned the Victorian government’s conservative approach will do little to ease its financial burden.
Some larger venues may even stay closed with hospitality owners saying it not worth their while to open up with a 50-person indoor limit.
Acting Premier James Merlino announcing a slow easing of restrictions, which has generated some frustration among businesses.Credit:Joe Armao
Acting Premier James Merlino announced that restrictions would ease across the state on Friday after just one case, a close contact already in isolation, was recorded on Wednesday.
Retail, hospitality and schools in Melbourne will reopen and events such as weddings and funerals can take place with tight attendance limits, which Mr Merlino said he expected to loosen further in a week.
Businesses such as gyms and nightclubs are still shut as Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said the risk of undetected cases still existing in the community played heavily on the government’s decision-making – logic endorsed by epidemiologists.
“It’s [the risk of] potentially undetected cases out there,” Professor Sutton said. “We’ve had a number of cases where acquisition isn’t absolutely clear, so we just need to run that down as much as possible.”
Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said the government didn’t understand the pain they were putting Victorians through with oppressive visitor limits.
“You may as well say you can open a restaurant but you can’t serve food,” he said.
Danni Hunter, Victorian director of the Property Council of Australia, said she could not detect an appetite from the Victorian government to revitalise the ailing CBD.
“There’s an utter dearth of confidence in Melbourne as a place to invest. People are leaving Melbourne and Victoria,” said Ms Hunter, whose group represents property owners and developers.
The wet and cold winter is not likely to entice diners to east al frescoCredit:Justin McManus
“Other capital cities are going past us and we’re losing our confidence and buzz.”
Ms Hunter cited data showing about 45 per cent of Melbourne’s office workers had returned to the city before the lockdown, about 25 percentage points fewer than Sydney and Brisbane.
“[The slow easing of restrictions] will just put us back further,” she warned.
Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Paul Guerra said he was pleased restrictions had loosened but lamented the fact business such as gyms and nightclubs could not open.
“The larger restaurants around the CBD and the larger pubs around the state … It will be difficult for them until we get the limits up to a reasonable level.”
“We need to quickly move to a position where every business in the state can operate and, importantly, operate viably.”
Mr Guerra said the continuation of mask-wearing indoors and office attendance caps would slow the return of CBD office workers.
The impact on workers will be compounded when, as Mr Merlino said, the federal government’s disaster payment of $325 or $500 per week would likely stop at 11.59pm on Thursday. Metropolitan employees will have been able to access the payment for just one week.
Wednesday’s news was a blow for Snap Fitness Footscray owner Matt Bender who had organised a deep clean of his gym, refilled hand sanitiser dispensers and briefed personal trainers in anticipation of reopening later this week. “This a kick in the guts,” he said. “It’s just devastating.”
The father-of-two said Melbourne’s four lockdowns had already cost his business more than $500,000 and being closed for an additional week would cost him about $20,000.
But Mr Bender said his main concern was the livelihood of staff, none of whom qualify for government subsidies and will not be paid, and the mental and physical health of members.
While business owners were critical, La Trobe University epidemiologist Hassan Vally said one week of extra conservatism on restrictions was valid to be “really confident you’re not missing anything bubbling away”.
“There was a part of me as a citizen, rather than an epidemiologist, that hoped there’d be enough confidence to open up that little bit quicker.”
“I think we’re all anxious of repeating last winter, but I do wonder if the next week continues the way the last few days have been, whether the government can be a little bolder in terms of relaxing more rules,” Associate Professor Vally said.
James McCaw, an epidemiologist with the University of Melbourne, agreed that a careful loosening of public health rules was wise in order to try and replicate Victoria’s run of 86 zero-local-case days before the current outbreak.
He said there was still a possibility of undetected chains of transmission, particularly linked to the Delta cluster where health authorities suspect a missing link between the initial case who arrived in Melbourne on May 8 and the families infected in late May.
By limiting the range of high-risk activities for another week, Professor McCaw said any unknown cases who may not be in quarantine would be less likely to spread the virus than they would if restrictions were wound back dramatically.
“The consequences would be dramatic and this is a way to manage that risk,” he said.
Victorian authorities are still investigating how the index case in the Delta outbreak passed on the virus. They are working through CCTV from his stay at the Novotel Ibis in Little Lonsdale Street and from when he arrived at the airport for clues of how he might have transmitted COVID-19.
Mr Merlino said he was hopeful restrictions could ease further next week.
“The expectation is that from Thursday night next week, we’ll be in a position where we can bring Melbourne and regional Victoria much closer together,” he said.
“That would mean the travel restrictions in terms of the 25 kilometre [limit], that would go … easing of restrictions for venues, community sport competition will resume.”
The tally of Victorian coronavirus exposure sites had dropped to 176 on Wednesday evening, well below its peak of more than 370 locations late last week and from about 200 on Tuesday evening.
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