Coffee business owner Darren Silverman pulled his van over and wept when he heard on the radio that Melbourne’s coronavirus lockdown would be largely lifted Wednesday after 111 days.
Silverman was making a home delivery Monday when the announcement was made that restrictions in Australia’s second-largest city would be relaxed. He was overwhelmed with emotion and a sense of relief.
“The difficulty over the journey, when you’ve put 30 years of your life into something that’s suddenly taken away with the prospect of not returning through no fault of your own — I felt like I could be forgiven for pulling over and having a bit of a sob to myself,” he said.
According to the Victoria state government, the lockdown easing will allow 6,200 retail stores, 5,800 cafes and restaurants, 1,000 beauty salons and 800 pubs to reopen, affecting 180,000 jobs.
Crowds on the city’s streets — where mask-wearing remains compulsory — remained thin Wednesday because Melbourne residents are still restricted to traveling no more than 16 miles from home. Most of the city’s office blocks also remained empty as work-from-home orders continue.
And although there were pedestrians at the downtown Bourke Street Mall, it was clear that many retail outlets and eateries did not survive the lockdown, the city’s second since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
As most of Australia emerges from pandemic restrictions, the virus has resumed spreading at an alarming rate in Victoria’s capital, Melbourne.
Many of those still in business are reporting record demand from the city’s lockdown-weary residents, with some restaurants already fully booked a month in advance now that they are no longer restricted to takeout orders.
“People are anxious to get out, to be able to sit outside at a table and have a cup of a coffee or something to eat,” cafe owner Maria Iatrou said. “People are really enjoying it and it’s going to be a bit of a crush for the next few weeks while people get that out of their system.”
The lockdown had been particularly tough on Melbourne residents because the rest of Australia successfully contained second waves of infections without increasing restrictions. Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews faced enormous pressure from businesses and the federal government to reopen for the sake of the economy.
Andrews resisted until Monday, when he announced the relaxation hours after the state had recorded no new infections in the latest 24-hour period. It was the first time Melbourne had gone a day without a new infection since June 9, and the milestone was celebrated on social media as Donut Day.
Australia says it doesn’t want a trade war with China, which is angry at Australia’s push for an investigation into its handling of the coronavirus.
Tuesday was another Donut Day, Melbourne’s first consecutives days with no new infections since March 5 and 6. Two new cases were reported Wednesday, but the pair had been in contact with people already known to be infected and were in isolation.
Andrews thanked the retail and hospitality industries for working with his government to reopen safely.
“They know and understand deep down that we’ve all got to be COVID-safe. We’ve all got to follow the rules to protect staff, to protect customers, but also to protect this fragile thing that we’ve all built,” Andrews said, referring to containment of the coronavirus.
Iatrou said the lockdown was difficult both professionally and personally. Her cafe made it through by offering takeout and delivery. But she lost her uncle and godmother to COVID-19 and could not attend their funerals because of coronavirus restrictions.
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They were in nursing homes, where most of Victoria’s 819 coronavirus deaths have been recorded. Only 88 people have died of COVID-19 elsewhere in Australia.
“Unless you were here, it’s difficult to understand what kind of a toll it does have on you,” Iatrou said of the lockdown. “It’s a strain to get through most days.”
Mary Poulakis said she’s thrilled to have reopened the upscale clothing boutique she’s owned for 35 years in suburban Coburg. She also said there’s no way she would obey a third lockdown.
“It’s been tumultuous. It’s been like a roller-coaster. You’re up, you’re down, you’re open, you’re closed, you’re on, you’re off,” Poulakis said. “I’m staying open. I cannot close my doors again.“