When restrictions eased we all wondered whether it was too soon, and whether we should venture out. I work in a field where the answer of “it depends” to problems with no clear answer is the primary reason I am employed. Like the nature of most complicated matters, the answer is best found with hindsight; the actual outcome.
If you ask someone from any other State or Territory of Australia, the answer as we approach the middle of July would be reasonably positive. For Melburnians, whatever the reason for the surge in cases, we know that easing restrictions certainly didn’t help. Did we venture out? A lot of us did.
Time goes quickly. On Monday 1 June, Catherine, Sydney, and I, did not immediately go to sit in a cafe. My conservative nature lends itself to making informed decisions, and I wanted to see what the coming weeks looked like. When cases continued to reduce, a few weeks later we started by going to Mayday on Wednesday 17 June. That is over two weeks of wanting to go and do something normal after 11 weeks of not having the option.
There was a few reasons we started at Mayday. The first was having gone for takeaway coffee several times during stage 3 restrictions, I noticed how much effort was made for distancing and sanitation. The 20 person rule allowed Mayday to space even more than what is necessary, and Catherine and I had a very pleasant lunch with the usual excellent food and coffee that make Mayday one of my Richmond favourites. The flood gates had opened. For the next 3 weeks.
The next day I was at the Cherry Tree with old work colleagues, only two of which still work together, but we have a close knit group of friends now, and had spent several hours having virtual catch ups in the earlier 13 weeks. Through the years I have always loved this pub and its staff and clientele. During the height of restrictions it was a pillar of the Cremorne community, going above and beyond to be helpful, whether it was the deliveries of food and drinks with a free hand sanitiser (during the panic buying times), or just to put a smile on our faces with terrible onesies, or videos of their ute roaming the streets.
It was at this stage that I realised you still had to be careful in where you decide to go out and dine. We were eating outside, and people waiting for takeaways didn’t seem to understand what distancing is. It was a little disappointing having this insight into some attitudes.
On the Saturday (20 June) we were out doing some shopping and decided to go to Carlton. Initially we were headed for just gelato at Pidapipo, but it was getting on and we were a while from dinner, so we ended up with a mid-afternoon snack at D.O.C. sharing a margherita pizza. It brings up something I’ve noticed. Restaurant kitchens catering to less people has a tangible uptick in quality, even in situations where the quality is normally consistently very high like at D.O.C. The margherita pizza today was the best I’ve had from D.O.C. in Carlton or Mornington, and actually the best I can remember having in Melbourne. There is something in that.
The next day we met one of Catherine’s parent’s (mother’s) group couples, Aiofe and Jimmy, and their daughter, Saoirse, at Red Door Corner Store in Northcote. Again, this was a cafe we have been to multiple times that we trust to do the right thing. And they did. In fact the whole courtyard is not very large so our table of 6 was the maximum allowed out there. That was until two ladies (who knew better) came through the backdoor to sip on their takeaway coffees. Another small breach that the venue has little control of (they were asked to leave once staff saw, but we didn’t mention the numbers because we didn’t want to be confronting). Lunch was superb and our little boy Sydney, and Saoirse, had run of the courtyard!
It was around this stage where some cracks were beginning to appear. We had a table of 5 booked for Sunday 28 June at The Lincoln Hotel (another trusted venue). One of my friends, living in the north-west, had started making gestures that he was uncomfortable to attend. In the end he decided not to come, and 4 of us met up for a long Sunday afternoon lunch, which included me indulging in the Sunday roast (pork belly). Like every venue I had been to, they did the right things, and the basic stuff like taking names on entry and having distanced tables and appropriate numbers, seemed second nature.
However, the night before Catherine met up with the mums from her parent’s group and I was concerned to hear about some obvious and blatant breaches. Firstly, the rule of 20 within an enclosed space with a minimum of 4 square metres per person, was breached at least once (but possibly twice with the outside not distanced), and they had a table of 8 that was not split (the rule is no more than 6 for a table). Their names, incredibly, were not taken, and only the host who booked was recorded. It is not my place to mention the venue, but it is very disappointing.
In what would become my last lunch out for some time, on Friday 3 July I met back up with most of the same old work friends at a new pizza place in Richmond. I’m not going to name the venue, but the pizza is excellent. I had done reconnaissance the week prior, having lunch at 2pm by myself to see what it was like. Knowing Friday is busy we made our booking early and had a table for 5. During lunch a walk-in group of around 5-6 people (I had my back to them) came in. Unfortunately this seemed to be a case of being polite over maintaining the rules.
The table was seated very close to our table, to the extent that the back of our chairs would be an inch from each other. It was uncomfortable in any situation, but with the distancing rules, it was stressful. A rational assessment of the numbers meant I wasn’t overly concerned, but I am someone who follows rules, and eventually we said something to the staff, but it had been a good 20 minutes. They moved the table as luckily some more space had opened up. I think Julie was counting the numbers inside every few minutes and arrived at there being about 19. Unfortunately, as we left we realised that the square metre rule only allowed 17, so they were well over for much of lunch. Yes, here is a new venue that is struggling to stay alive. The mental health of the owners and staff would be stretched. But distancing has never been about detection risk or policing has it? It is just a minimum standard.
The postcode lockdown had started the day prior, and the North Melbourne extension would begin two days later. By Thursday 9 July we would be back in stage 3 restrictions. The takeaway-way-of-life would recommence and Catherine and I would be eating Chin Chin at home on a Saturday night, rather than be with friends as we had planned weeks prior.
In the 3 weeks of actually going and sitting in a pub, cafe, or restaurant, I would see even the simple rules be breached. I wouldn’t say there was anything substantial in itself with any of these breaches. The issue is that in a short period of time we had seen most rules being overlooked, or flagrantly breached. Multiply that by our massive population and there is not just an issue in certain postcodes, or certain building structures. With this perspective it is hard for me to blame bad luck and circumstance on the growing numbers, and it is hard to disagree with some further stage 3 restrictions.