What the Heck Just Happened?
It’s been less than two months since The Beast posted an article online covering the impact of new social distancing laws on some of our local businesses, but it feels a lot longer. For many Eastern Suburbs residents, the sight of our beaches fenced off and deserted, still perfectly smooth from the beach rake, was a surreal scene. The sight of people lining up for coffee, smoothie bowls, and organic bread was stranger still; wasn’t everyone supposed to be at home?
Our local area has not been immune to the dramatic and worldwide impacts of the coronavirus over the past months. But as the first social distancing restrictions are eased, we are coming out the other side better off than most. As time goes on it is clear that, unlike Italy, America and the UK, strict social distancing measures have had more impact on day to day life here than the virus itself.
At first, the outlook for the Eastern Suburbs was grim. Bondi Beach made national headlines when it filled up on a hot weekend. Backpacker parties followed and Bondi became one of Sydney’s COVID-19 hotspots. In fact, with a cumulative 180 cases, the Waverley LGA had the highest number of infections of any in Sydney. As Randwick, Waverley and Woollahra councils rushed to close beaches and the federal government introduced new restrictions on local businesses, the projections for the coming months were dire. Children were sent home, buying restrictions at supermarkets were enforced due to shortages of essential items and thousands of workers lost their jobs. Almost overnight, life in the carefree Eastern Suburbs became unrecognisable.
But after two months of this new normal, these nationwide measures have proved extraordinarily successful. Case numbers have dropped significantly to an average of 0.5 active cases per postcode in the Eastern Suburbs – a great achievement for one of the previous virus hot spots.
A medical worker at a local Eastern Suburbs hospital told The Beast that they were thrilled with the success of Australia’s fight against coronavirus.
“We thought we were going to get hit like Italy,” they said. “We spent six weeks getting prepared; we’re completely ready and it has not happened.”
One reason for this may be the success of pop-up testing clinics at Bondi Pavilion, Prince of Wales Hospital, and Spring Street, Bondi Junction. In Waverley alone there have been over 97 tests for every 1,000 residents, a huge number compared to the national average of 33.5 tests per 1,000 residents, and the UK average of 28.3 tests per 1,000.
Medical experts agree that higher rates of testing are key to tracing and containing the virus, as is enthusiastic adherence to social distancing rules. Waverley Mayor Paula Masselos said that community efforts in social distancing have made all the difference in reducing the rate of infection.
“On the whole, I think the community has done an amazing job and people have recognised the need to pull together. Without that cooperation we wouldn’t have been able to flatten the curve as we have,” she told The Beast.
The consequence of effective social distancing has been a significant economic impact for local businesses, with many proprietors reporting losses of nearly 100 per cent of trade. Waverley, Woollahra, and Randwick councils provided early support to local businesses, announcing relief packages within days of each other. All three councils waived health, hygiene, licensing and fire safety inspection fees for local businesses, and rent relief for small business tenants of council-owned properties has also been provided. Waverley Council even offered up to 100 per cent rent relief in some cases, and both Randwick and Waverley councils are further supporting small businesses by waiving interest on overdue council fees.
Woollahra Mayor Susan Wynne told The Beast that Woollahra’s small business support scheme has high priority for the council.
“Supporting our local businesses has been a key focus for all our residents and I’m pleased Council has been able to help ease the economic impact of COVID-19 through relief measures for our local small businesses,” she said.
The local, council-driven response to supporting small businesses has paired well with a groundswell of community support. Chris Martin, manager of Bronte butcher Lucas Meats, has experienced both the highs and lows of business in a coronavirus world.
“We’ve seen a massive decrease in the wholesale side of the business that supplies restaurants and cafes, but a big rise in our retail,” Mr Martin told The Beast.
“People who’ve lived around the corner for fifteen years are scared of going to Coles or Woolies and have come here for the first time; I think we’ve made a lot of friends for after the pandemic too.”
As we wait to see whether life will go back to normal sooner rather than later, community action is key for preserving the connected, laid-back culture of the east that so many of its residents value.
Randwick Mayor Danny Said pointed to community response as a high-value commodity as we move into the next stage of the pandemic.
“There are no doubt difficult times ahead for many in our community, however, what we have seen over the past couple of months is Randwick’s remarkable sense of community come to the fore. That is what will take us forward and help us through this period. The more we work together and care for each other, the better-placed we will be to respond,” he told The Beast.
Residents of the Eastern Suburbs can be proud of what they have done to stop the spread of coronavirus in their suburbs. Ultimately, the story of COVID-19 in our area is one of hope. We are not in the clear yet and are probably facing a winter of social distancing but, with beaches starting to reopen, residents are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel. We also know now that social distancing works and that council and community are here to help in times of crisis. The Eastern Beaches may not be free from coronavirus yet, but we seem to have found our modus operandi for the fight ahead.