The bareback rider’s defiant cry, before the stern faces of the constabulary along the Queensland-NSW border, was reminiscent of a Hollywood film, fitting given his career as a professional stuntman: “They can’t hold all of us.”
For his efforts stirring the crowd of about 1000 protesting against lockdowns and travel bans in the cross-border community of Coolangatta-Tweed Heads last Sunday, 52-year-old Michael Corrigan has since been fined more than $7000 by police on both sides of the state line for breaching health directions.
Condemnation of the protest, while smaller in scale than those in capital cities, was swift by members of the Queensland government. But many who live their lives across the two states feel the frustration caused by the toughest travel restrictions imposed since the pandemic began.
Just 200 metres west of the border monument where Corrigan, who himself calls northern NSW home, urged others to cross sits a strip of shops: a retaining wall and fence all that separates a shared service alley at the rear and Tweed Heads Public School, in locked-down NSW.
Mark Belcher, who has run Mexican restaurant and tequila bar The Aztec on the site for seven years – after 20 years above the nearby surf club – believes the protest did more harm than good. “But obviously people are angry,” he says.
“The hard border closure has made it more difficult than ever,” Belcher says. “How does this go on?”
Those who live in the region are now no stranger to the barricades and checkpoints which marked parts of the region, and beyond to the South Australian border, for much of 2020.
However, for much of this and earlier in the more recent Sydney outbreak, border bubble arrangements allowed residents in a number of border-hugging local government areas access to the Queensland side of their closely intermingled lives.
That bubble has remained burst since all of regional NSW went into a snap lockdown, with two hours’ notice, on August 14 amid escalating outbreaks further south and west – now extended until at least September 10 after the state reported more than 1000 new cases on Thursday for the first time.
Many had already felt the difficulties of two recent lockdowns on the Queensland side.
Belcher was ultimately faced with a decision to stay in locked-down Tweed Heads, where he usually lives with his wife and their second massage business, or set up fewer than five kilometres away in Queensland to keep the restaurant afloat with two of the 15 staff who live on the right side of the border.
He chose the latter, and says while trade is down 22 per cent, he barely stopped working last week.
Offering takeaway to those on the southern side – walked through the back alley and placed on the bright orange barricade he can still see his wife across – has been helpful. Some days the trade is better than from Queenslanders dining in.
Police have no indication a repeat of Sunday’s outburst will happen this weekend. While accepting the need to keep COVID cases at bay, Belcher says those in power on both sides of the border need to act. There has been talk of an advertising push by local businesses on the border shift, which NSW “won’t acknowledge”.
Despite Queensland’s Deputy Premier indicating there had been movement on Friday, a NSW government spokeswoman insists the position has not softened. “There’s no answers for us,” Belcher says.
So far, there appears only to be tougher restrictions in an effort to delay the next inevitable incursion of Delta into Queensland. All but essential workers are barred from crossing the border and those allowed to cross must show proof of at least one vaccine dose. Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young has tasked public service heads to trim this daily figure, in the low thousands, as close to zero as they can.
With teachers among those deemed non-essential, Gold Coast schools are down staff and students. About 450 kilometres west, in the border town of Mungindi and some 130 kilometres north-east of Walgett – one of the areas of concern in NSW – the line through the middle of town has locked out southern-based health service staff and barred northern residents from accessing the shops to the south.
Nationals MP for the NSW Northern Tablelands electorate Adam Marshall described the resulting decision to close all but the Mungindi Multipurpose Health Service’s emergency department a “bastard act in the extreme”.
Farm manager Sam Heagney, whose property extends south from about 10 kilometres further into NSW, is concerned about the impact the tougher restrictions will have on grain harvests for both sides from next month, after he was denied entry to have necessary work done on a machinery part.
“They won’t be given access to Queensland,” he said of the many workers who would pitch in during a normal year.
Defence personnel have again joined police on checkpoint duties along the length of the Queensland-NSW border, through which every vehicle is now funnelled and scrutinised. In Coolangatta at least, things are more porous for anyone willing to jump a barrier or cross to the other side of a street under threat of fines.
On Wednesday, citing an at-capacity hotel quarantine system, Queensland authorities announced a two-week pause on residents returning or people relocating from NSW, Victoria and the ACT. Only those lucky enough to be granted exemptions under “extreme exceptional circumstances” can fly into hotel quarantine from these states.
Residents on both sides have been urging their elected representatives to do more.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk again wrote to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian offering to move the Gold Coast region checkpoints to the Tweed River, in an effort to make travel easier for at least some residents.
This was rejected, with Ms Berejiklian’s deputy John Barilaro suggesting it would simply shift the problem further south. Tweed Shire mayor Chris Cherry, an independent, believes this may only impact 1800 of the 16,000 who would usually cross the border during their daily lives if the border were moved to her shire’s southern end. Her region is yet to record a single case of COVID-19.
Gold Coast mayor Tom Tate has also repeatedly called for the border checkpoints to be shifted. Other officials on the Queensland side concede that if the bubble were extended into Tweed, other regions would want the same.
Without JobKeeper and higher income support rates, some residents feel the state-led business support measures are just “throwing some coins on the ground”.
Dr Young has flagged broader vaccine-only travel and hopes border restrictions will remain in place for no longer than 10 weeks, when 70 per cent of her state’s population is expected to be fully vaccinated, as national debate continues about what life will look like once the target is reached.
Back on the streets of Coolangatta, a woman asks a TV news crew if she needs to be on the other side of the road to avoid accidentally crossing the border. Beach-bound kids walk with fishing rods in hand. A pair of cyclists pose for photos before carefully considering their next move. “If we were in East Berlin, we’d be shot,” one remarks.
One couple says the area is not quiet, but dead.
Tweed-based Alicia Tease, who owns a hair salon a few doors up from Belcher’s restaurant along the Griffith Street strip, had been hoping for an end to the lockdown which has placed stay-at-home orders on her entirely south-of-the-border staff.
After shifting her business across the line a week before the Queensland shut NSW out last year, Tease says she is trying to keep morale up while home-schooling three kids and making plans to at least offer services out of other salons if the lockdown lifts but travel north is denied.
The idea of opening a second salon on the southern side has crossed her mind. As has the frustration being felt by many across the region at the perceived inertia from governments on both sides.
“I’m always so nice about it and I always say, you know we just go with the flow, but really at the end of the day, I do feel like the premiers don’t care about anyone on the border,” Tease says.
“They don’t actually realise how much money people had lost. If we didn’t have savings, we wouldn’t have money for food.
“Everyone’s just gone, right, that’s it, and they’re just even more furious.”
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