It was a tipping point in the Australian response to the COVID-19 crisis – March 20, 2020. Maybe it will be remembered as ‘COVID Friday’ in years to come. Social distancing and self-isolating measures had been introduced but not necessarily enforced. Sydneysiders had spent their first week locked indoors and, as the Friday afternoon temperatures soared into the 30s, it proved too much and the crowds from near and far flocked to the Eastern Beaches. While there’s no denying that too many people did the wrong thing that day, most regular surfers and swimmers from the east got their salt water fix and headed home.
It wasn’t long before the mainstream media were all over it, dispersing images of crowded Bondi around the country and the globe. In a time of crisis there’s nothing the press loves more than a whipping boy, someone to point the finger at and blame – who better to demonise than those stuck-up Bondi yuppies and foreign backpackers? And, as the media hoped, the headlines and imagery ‘went viral’.
Meanwhile, the New South Wales government and police force struck upon the moment as an opportunity to make a point. The next day, the police minister, David Elliot, led a press conference outside the Bondi Pavilion and announced they would be shutting the beach. Prohibiting access to Australia’s most iconic strip of sand was always going to get wide-sweeping attention and sent a clear message to everyone in the state that the authorities wouldn’t tolerate anyone flouting the rules. It was an effective, hardline initiative, but there’s also no doubt that Bondi was being used as a political pawn.
A temporary closure of beaches – a proverbial slap on the wrist – would have made sense. However, by Sunday afternoon, surfers and swimmers were forced to jump fences at Tamarama and Bronte to get in the water and from there on the restrictions were steadily ramped up. In days to come, others fled to Maroubra and Coogee and ultimately contributed to the closure of beaches in Randwick.
It wasn’t long before rangers and police lurked on the water’s edge at Mackenzies Bay (where there seemed to be a possible loophole as it wasn’t technically a beach), threatening heavy fines and inspiring more than one mad dash up the rocks. Others adopted the Mexican standoff approach, staying in the water until police or rangers disappeared. Suddenly, a normal, healthy behaviour had become a criminal activity and many felt that an unfair double standard was being applied to surfers in particular – those exercising on the coastal path and the promenade seemed to be far closer to a violation of the guidelines. Didn’t surfing, ocean swimming or soft sand running qualify as legitimate exercise? One surfer, a local lawyer, told me he was chomping at the bit to defend someone in court.
At the time of writing, most other beaches, including Cronulla, in New South Wales remain open, with respective councils adopting a beach management model. A local group has now begun circulating a petition, which calls for Randwick and Waverley Councils to adopt similar, common sense procedures. The group’s spokesperson, Mic Gruchy, commented, “My friends and I who surf the Eastern Suburbs beaches are being unfairly denied access to the ocean and I wanted to do something practical, legal and rational about it before things get out of control. If the police and council lifeguards are on the beach there’s no reason why they can’t manage safe, socially distanced access to the surf.”
Waverley and Randwick are two of the highest density coastal councils in Australia. Opening beaches while coronavirus still permeates our lives will require coordination between police, lifeguards and rangers. That doesn’t mean it’s not socially desirable and achievable.
As temperatures drop, the likelihood of another fair-weather stampede is far less likely. Meanwhile, talk of a six-month extension of the current restrictions looms ominously. As the so-called curve flattens, it’s time to put a sensible plan into place for the Eastern Beaches. The virus poses a threat but this must be weighed against the fact that the physical and mental well-being of so many locals hinges on a regular visit to Dr Pacific.