The decision has come as a huge disappointment for the peninsula’s tourism industry, which is bracing for a busy summer to recoup some of its losses during the pandemic.
The state government has said it will scrap travel restrictions for Melburnians on Sunday.
Last month Health Minister Martin Foley said the 25-kilometre travel restriction on movement had been put in place to protect popular holiday and day trip destination within greater Melbourne – including the Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley.
The council’s decision to close its campsites came after it conducted a risk assessment and decided it was not safe to proceed.
Mornington Peninsula chief executive John Baker said the shared facilities at the camping grounds were among the biggest worries.
“One of our major concerns is the transmission risk from people having to use the shared toilet and shower amenity blocks,” he said.
Mr Baker said the council was disappointed the camping season had been postponed but it was necessary to keep visitors and the community safe.
The Greater Geelong council, by comparison, will allow camping at the site it manages in Breamlea.
Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio told reporters the Mornington Peninsula had made the call that they were unable to comply with Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton’s advice on permissible camping on public land.
“We will continue to encourage the Mornington Peninsula Shire to talk with the Chief Health Officer and his team to work through ways of seeing whether they are able to allow some limited amount of camping on their public grounds,” she said.
Mornington Peninsula Regional Tourism Board chair Tracey Cooper said many businesses in places such as Rye relied heavily on a busy camping season to keep their businesses afloat.
“It’s a huge part of our overnight visitation for the summer period,” she said. “It’s also tradition. Some of those people have been coming for generations.”
She said the council would lose about $3 million in camping fees in 2020.
Ms Cooper said camping across the Mornington Peninsula attracted 30,000 visitors each summer across all the sites.
Deakin University epidemiology chair Catherine Bennett said capping the number of campers was a better strategy than banning camping altogether.
“To stop it all before the end of January doesn’t seem proportionate to the risk as long as you can manage the risk in the shared facilities,” she said.
Professor Bennett said operating with lower numbers would allow camping grounds to prepare to reopen to larger numbers later.
The Porter family are regulars at the Capel Sound camping ground where they have loved spending Christmas with their family. But they have taken a “lay off” this year amid concerns about coronavirus and will instead spend summer in Noojee.
“I think the way this year has gone it was probably the only decision we could make,” Ms Porter said. “Safety has to come first.”
Capel Sound Foreshore manager Wayne Nicholls said he expected to open the camping ground on December 19 but that would depend on advice from the Health Department.
“We’re just wanting to understand what issues or complexities or restrictions are in place that would prevent us from providing a safe experience for the public,” he said.
The Whitecliffs to Camerons Bight Foreshore camping ground is also expected to reopen on December 19. Foreshore manager Greg Powell said the opening date was being reviewed regularly to ensure it was consistent with the latest advice.
“Our priority is to make sure we do the utmost to protect the public from a health perspective,” he said.
Benjamin is The Age’s regional editor. He was previously state rounds reporter and has also covered education for The Age.