There are tensions simmering in regional Victoria between those ready to welcome back Melburnians so businesses can benefit and others who fear their communities will be subjected to an unacceptable risk.
The Strathbogie Shire, which covers Nagambie, is finalising plans for a large outdoor dining precinct on a wide stretch of grass along the main road using state government funding.
Mr Knight, who also breeds race horses, wants to be able to temporarily segregate locals and Melburnians at his venue, Zephyrz, to give Nagambie residents more time to feel safe again.
“If businesses have the power to make sure that their dining spaces inside are still only open for local people and then Melbourne people are allowed to dine in these state government funded precincts, that’s what it’s got to get to.”
Strathbogie Shire has recorded just two COVID-19 cases throughout the entire pandemic. The shire’s chief executive, Julie Salomon, says the council is now balancing the “very real need” for local hospitality businesses to bring people back while remaining COVID safe.
“In an environment of constant change, we’re working hard to balance competing interests,” she says.
Nagambie, which backs onto a large picturesque lake and is known as the birthplace of racehorse Black Caviar, is gaining popularity as a holiday destination.
It has a population of about 1800 people but accommodates up to 6000 during peak periods, according to the Go Nagambie tourism and commerce group.
Christian de Vrieze, who is general manager of Nagambie Brewery and Mitchelton Wines, says local venues have introduced substantial new precautions, including new cleaning schedules to keep both locals and tourists safe.
“As a business, we’re cautious but keen to allow families and loved ones to finally catch up,” he says. “Hopefully, we can play host to those people who haven’t been able to see each other for months.”
Go Nagambie secretary John Beresford says it is inevitable that Melbourne will open up and his town’s economy stands to benefit.
He says safe preparation of the outdoor dining areas and ensuring there is enough seating will be crucial.
“We can’t get out there and stop that exodus from Melbourne and nor would we want to,” he says.
Tourism Minister Martin Pakula acknowledged the tension in regional Victoria during an online summit hosted by the Tourism and Transport Forum this week.
He described a “disconnect in ambition” between the tourism sector and regional communities.
“So whereas the regional tourism sector might be busting for Melburnians to get out to the regions, if you talk to people in those communities, where they’ve now got a degree of freedom that is possible because they’re COVID-free, they are not so keen for people from a COVID zone to be heading to their community,” he told the meeting.
“I think the regional tourism operators understand that, but we’ve got to find that balance between the needs of operators and those regional communities who are really jealously protecting their COVID-free status.”
Ratepayers Geelong president Peter Mitchell says frustrations have flared about the presence of Melburnians in the region with some people derisively referring to the ring of steel as a “ring of tissue paper”.
“There is a large group of people who want to open and go back to business but not with Melbourne people,” he says.
Mr Mitchell says some Geelong residents are not ready for an influx of Melburnians on November 9 when travel restrictions are set to be lifted.
Victorians are facing a summer holiday like none other this year.
UNSW Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, an infection control expert and adviser to the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 preparedness group, says “ring fencing” will be crucial to preventing widespread outbreaks in regional areas during the summer break.
That means Melburnians will have to be ready to get tested and self-isolate at a moment’s notice if there are outbreaks in holiday spots while they are away.
“The reaction has to be an overreaction. It has to be highly pre-emptive and precautionary,” she says.
Professor McLaws argues contact tracers should also be ready to descend on country towns if there are outbreaks to prevent “event amplification” where the movement of travellers results in the virus spreading rapidly.
“These holidays are potentially amplifying events. We should be putting the resources where the people go.”
Benjamin is The Age’s regional editor. He was previously state rounds reporter and has also covered education for The Age.