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The Reopening: A Profile of a Free City (with caveats)

A photographic essay.

A worker tapes signs on a store window in promotion of a sale on opening day. (Jeremy Gan)

Victoria has just come out of a dark winter. The city is finally re-opening.

I ventured around Melbourne for the first time since August 15. On October 27 - Tuesday - the city was still empty under the typically gloomy weather, and I could feel a tension around the streets.

Just the day before, after a day with no new confirmed cases or deaths, Premier Daniel Andrews announced that shops could now accept customers starting from 11:59pm that evening. Passing by numerous restaurants and shops I used to frequent, now shuttered and empty, the mood was despondent. But many shops were getting ready to re-open for the next day.

From the restaurants in the narrow alleys of Chinatown, to the high-end bistros on Collins St, delivery people hauling boxes of produce into the backdoors, waiters cleaning tables and floors. Owners discussing with other owners on sidewalks about tomorrow’s reopening, the pubs across my apartment were finally looking a little lively again. Bookstores announce opening times.

That day was meant to be the start of this article, spent approaching businesses and speaking to locals, but I was so awestruck by the number of places which were opening that I completely forgot to talk to anyone. I haven’t seen the streets of Melbourne this ‘busy’ since early June. This left me with a constant smile under my mask.

“OPEN AT LAST” the day’s front page of The Age said. Twitter erupted with proclamations to “Get on the beers!” Everyone was joyous at the reopening of Melbourne - except for the Liberal politicians criticising the Premier for the restrictions and second wave.

When I visited my nearest bottle shop to pick up a six pack, the cashier jokingly exclaimed, “Lucky you! Just copped the last pack of Asahi!” I asked him if there was an uptick in beer sales since yesterday’s press conference. “Oh yea, there definitely was,” he responded. “A bloke came in, bought three boxes of Corona and left without saying a word,” he said. He mimics the bloke carrying the boxes, his arms curled above his shoulders, acting strained from the weight of the imaginary beers. We both smiled at each other under our masks.

The next day, Wednesday, saw the city come alive. So alive it staggered me. The streets weren’t as lively as pre-pandemic Melbourne, but it was certainly a happy day. The sun was beaming and the streets were transformed from a ghost town to a bustling city (with some restrictions). The sounds of the city have come back. Cars honking, stores blasting top 50 songs, groups of friends talking loudly, thinking the world can’t hear them. Even though you couldn’t see everybody’s faces under their masks, you could tell it was much more joyous than yesterday’s tension.

“The week starts today!” claimed a text message by a large fast food chain promoting their reopening discounts. In fact, most stores I visited celebrated the occasion with a sale. As I walked down Bourke St, people crowded, taking photos of a sign in front of David Jones. “Welcome Back Melbourne”, the sign exclaimed as shoppers hauling bags emblazoned with a big red SALE sign dodged the cameras.

All photos by Jeremy Gan

Unlike the previous day’s overcast weather, the sun lit the Melbourne sidewalks to a burning white. There was no need for jackets, no need to take away your coffee, no need to worry about the virus for this one moment in time. It wasn’t the Melbourne that shuddered under 723 cases. Right now, it was the Melbourne where the streets were noisy and rambunctious.

I dodged the scorching sun to visit my favourite place, which I had missed, Metropolis Bookstore. In the air-conditioned store, I struck up a conversation with one of the owners.

“Luckily we haven’t been stampeded,” she said when I asked if it was a busy day. “But yeah, it’s a happy day for everyone. So, everyone’s coming in and browsing the shelves.” They too had a sale. I questioned if they had a book I wanted to buy, but someone before me had just bought it. “Lots of people have been ordering certain books today. Must be the atmosphere.” I ended up ordering the book.

Re-opening week may have just started, but the atmosphere didn’t follow through the next few weeks. Except for the pubs. The pubs are constantly rowdy again. In the pubs and small bars, servers and bartenders are armed with masks and disposable gloves and they keep their distance from the tables and their patrons.

“It’s protocol,” the waiter said when I asked about the distance from the table. Me and a few friends decided to go to a bar a few days after restrictions lifted, and we’d just filled out our contact details on a clipboard on a shoddily printed piece of paper. “If a staff here gets COVID, we have to close down. So, it’s just a precaution so more people can come back in,” she said with a smile behind her mask.

As the days started to go by, the streets started to go back to its ‘normal’ self. “Melbourne has gone back to its boring as shit self again!” a street photographer friend messaged me. He’d been walking the city for hours everyday since the restrictions were lifted. He seemed quite happy with the return to Melbourne’s usual mundanity.

The initial hype of the reopening was gone.

But the streets were still filled with odd, absurd moments that made the city interesting. A three-person Hare Krishna group walks down Swanston St singing and chanting loudly. A bloke with a weird looking mask passes by. A person dressed in a giant inflatable gorilla chills on a bench with some friends.

“I love your costume!” I told the gorilla as I took a picture of them. The gorilla stood up proudly. “Thank you!” they exclaimed. “What’s it for?” I asked. “We’re filming a thing!” the gorilla said. I high fived the inflatable giant before making my way down the streets.

Exactly one week after starting this, November 3, saw the start of the Melbourne Cup. This time every year, Flemington would be the site of audiences in their immaculate dresses and dapper suits using the occasion as an excuse to get hammered, seen stumbling out of the stadiums into the trains and pubs. But now, the race was only physically witnessed by the packs of press aiming their cameras at the horses, the ground staff and teams.

The day of the races also saw an anti-lockdown protest in front of the State Parliament calling for the removal of Dan Andrews. A day with no cases and no deaths. In the packed and rowdy protest, the mob shouted “Dan has got to go,” as the police, a little spray happy, blinded everyone in the area with their capsicum spray. There were 404 people arrested, a huge increase from the previous protests.

On November 8 at 11:59 PM, the 25km ‘ring of steel’ was broken. An influx of visitors drove out to regional Victoria visiting families, booking out rooms in hotels after a gloomy winter. Tourism operators urged travellers to ‘be kind’ when traveling out, while Melbourne’s roads leading to its beaches were packed with cars for the next few days.

I visited the Alpine Valley with a friend a few days after of the fall of the ring. The area had been ravaged by the recent summer bushfires, then had their winter tourism industry gutted by the pandemic. The area was quiet. It’s always quiet, but I suspect it's quieter than normal. We visited the top of Mount Buffalo as we passed by burnt areas and dried up trees still recovering. At the top, we struck up a conversation with a tourist from Melbourne.

He’d come from Melbourne to visit his grandpa’s grave site. Driving out of Melbourne a day after the ring was broken, he also talked about how the entire area had been screwed, and how he wanted to buy shirts from each small town and village to support them. “But obviously I ain’t gonna help them put out the bushfires if it somehow reaches here again,” he jokes. He bid us adieu as he drove away in a grey Toyota.

A man takes a picture from the window of a cabin at the Mount Buffalo lookout

The Alpine Valley was extremely quiet, in total contrast to Melbourne’s energy. But it wouldn’t usually be as quiet as it is now. The area would be teeming with tourists at this time of the holidays, but the area has faced a one-two punch of tragedies. A bushfire during the last holiday months forced many resorts and hotels to close, and its denizens had to evacuate their homes. Then once the bushfires were over, a global pandemic wrecked the global tourism industry. Especially during the winter months, as the area depended on the winter snow as its main attraction.

A three-and-a-half-hour drive from Melbourne, the valley was a much-needed quiet change of pace. I’ve always liked the claustrophobic nature of the city, but re-opening week, or weeks, was quite a lot. Even when I was walking around the city observing, I had to duck from the noise.

Going into a café on impulse to avoid the heat, I took out my notebook to collate my observations for this piece that day. The waiter brought my latte over and smiled as she put it on my table. I was immediately reminded of a conversation I had during the reopening week.

“You know what I missed?” a friend told me as we sat on a bench in the State Library (the cafés were full). “I missed the nameless interactions,” he said. “The city is made up of people, and it’s all the small conversations we have with the cashier, or the guy you bump into, or store owner you’re a regular at but don’t know her name.” He smiled under his mask while observing the myriads of different faces passing by us.

A cyclist looks at Melbourne’s horizon


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