On Tuesday 23 March it will be 12 months since Prime Minister Scott Morrison placed the whole of Australia in lockdown, we look back at what has happened since then.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Australia was identified in Victoria on 24 January, 2020 after a man who returned Wuhan in China tested positive.

At this stage very little was understood about the virus and very few were predicting what would happen to the whole world over the following 12 months. In Australia there followed a further eight cases in January, followed by 14 in February, before numbers started to accelerate in March.

By March 5, more than 20 more people had tested positive, creating uncertainty across the liquor industry. As the number of positive cases in Australia continued to jump, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $17.6billion stimulus package, which he said is about “keeping a business in business, particularly small and medium sized businesses”.

Soon March saw many industries begin to cancel large-scale events in a bid to slow down the pandemic, with Australasian Hospitality and Gaming Expo (AHG), which was scheduled to take place in Brisbane on 18-19 March, being one of the first for Australia’s liquor and hospitality industry.

Then on 18 March the Government announced a ban on indoor gatherings of more than 100 people, amid speculation that all hospitality venues may soon be forced to close.

While the speculation at this point was it would be venues that may be forced to close, there was uncertainty about whether bottleshops would also have to close, as retailers prepared for the impact of COVID-19.

Then at midday 23 March pubs, bars and clubs joined the list of venues forced to close their doors in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19, which by this time was standing at 1609 confirmed cases in Australia. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said we are likely to be facing the toughest economic situation in a century and called on all Australians to do their bit in battling the disease.

The industry reacted swiftly, with brewers buying back unused kegs, and many embracing the virtual world.

While the AHA reacted to the venue shutdown, there was reprieve for retailers as bottleshops were classed as essential services.

As you may recall this was a trying time in Australia as customers reacted to venue shutdowns with buffoonery, resulting in many retailers having to introduce purchase limits.

There was also further evidence of the industry’s adaptability as distillers across Australia pivoted into producing hand sanitiser as concerns grew over medical and hygiene supplies running low.

On 1 April Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced the introduction of the JobKeeper wage subsidy, created to help keep Australian workers in a job they may have already lost, or be in danger of losing as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

There then followed a range of other measures like rental relief, as well as initiative’s like Australian Hotelier’s Stronger Together, and Hospo For Life’s HospoHappyHour.

On 17 April Scott Morrison said the coronavirus lockdown would remain in place for at least the next four weeks, and outlined the seven conditions surrounding any relaxation of the conditions. Australian Tax Office also stepped in to help, saying it would support venues with takeaway sales by not applying regulations around licensing and excise duty.

By late April social distancing had become a key weapon in the battle against COVID-19, but even so disease and health experts were predicting pubs and bars would be among the last businesses to re-open once lockdown regulations began to be relaxed.

This kind of speculation was causing a huge amount of concern and uncertainty for the industry and leading pub group, Australian Venue Co, called on the Government to outline a clearer pathway to re-opening for the country’s venues.

Two days later on April 29 Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, explained the sequence of events required for Australia’s pubs, bars and restaurants to re-open.

The end of April also saw the states and territories start working on their own easing of restrictions, with Western Australia and South Australia cautiously allowing indoor and outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people.

Then the Northern Territory government announced that all licensed venues would be allowed to resume full trading in June, with restricted re-opening to commence on 15 May. With good news about reopening on the horizon, venues, and other small businesses, were urged to start planning how they would re-open and operate safely, once the green light was given by the Government.

Then on May 8, the Prime Minister confirmed the details of the National Cabinet’s plans for bringing Australia out of lockdown. There were three stages to the plan and the impacts of each stage would be reviewed every three weeks, with health experts advising the Government on whether it is safe to move forward onto the next stage.

Late May saw venues across the country began the slow process of re-opening, and Vitoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews said that venues in the state would re-open on 1 June. NSW then moved to fast-track its reopening roadmap, allowing up to 50 patrons in venues from 1 June.

It was interesting to see what leaving lockdown meant from a publican’s perspective.

In mid-June the Prime Minister said that the Federal Government was committed to its three-step process of recovery from lockdown and that it plans to move to step three in July. Step three would see the removal of the cap of 100 people for indoor gatherings, replaced by a four-square metre rule for venues.

Then came the first signs of the trouble that was to come for Victoria, when cases in the state began to spike and Premier Andrews postponed plans to introduce larger trading capacities for venues.

On July 8, Andrews re-instated Stage Three lockdown for Melbourne’s metropolitan area and the Shire of Mitchell.

This left businesses across the state ‘staring into the abyss’ with retailers promising to remain vigilant having once again been declared an ‘essential service’. But there were also calls for everyone across the industry and across the country to show their support for the venues forced shutdown once again.

In July a COVID cluster broke out in NSW, which was linked to a number of venues, prompting the Government to tighten restrictions. And thus began a series of announcements across the country with South Australia tightening restrictions, regional Victoria reopening, Queensland increasing outdoor capacity and NSW eases restrictions.

However in Melbourne venues were still closed and in mid-October there was anger after Premier Andrews announced a number of changes to restrictions across the state, but his decision not to allow hospitality venues in Melbourne to reopen drew widespread criticism.

But then, finally, at the end of October the green light was given and venues across Melbourne were able to celebrate reopening, with further restrictions being eased across Victoria in early November.

However on November 18, the reality of the volatile nature of this virus hit home in South Australia, when the state was plunged into an immediate lockdown, with no delivery when authorities were concerned over what they thought was a super-contagious strain in a Parafield cluster.

Then authorities learned that one of those who tested positive in the cluster had lied about his contacts and therefore the shutdown ended after three days instead of six. But there was still a massive cost for venues from this short-lived lockdown.

In December Victoria marked 38 consecutive days of no new cases with Premier Andrews outlining what Victorians will be able to do as part of a COVIDSafe Summer.

Following on from a Northern Beaches cluster in December, January saw NSW ease restrictions again to allow more people into venues.

Next up, Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan announced that metropolitan Perth and the Peel and South-West regions would enter a snap five-day lockdown after a quarantine hotel worker tested positive for COVID-19. Before Victoria had its own five-day “short, sharp circuit-breaker” which saw venues across the state close.

State and territory Governments across the country are continuing to monitor and adapt to this nightmare pandemic, which even as vaccines roll-out is showing little sign of abating. But there are positive signs, patrons in NSW last week were able to enjoy a drink while standing up.

Plus the positive attitude of this industry continues to shine through and we recently saw calls for a Fab Friday to encourage people back into Melbourne’s CBD on Friday afternoons and evenings.

Additionally to mark the one-year anniversary of when pubs across Australia were forced to close, Lion has declared 23 March 2021 as the inaugural ‘National Local Day’, and is encouraging the public to support their local pub.

What is certain is that this virus causes uncertainty and Governments will continue to adapt and change trading restrictions in order to keep the country as safe as possible. The Shout, Australian Hotelier, National Liquor News and Bars and Clubs will continue to bring you industry-leading news about what is happening and what it means to you.

Andy Young

Andy joined Intermedia as Editor of The Shout in 2015, writing news on a daily basis and also writing features for National Liquor News. Now Managing Editor of both The Shout and Bars and Clubs.

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