Lockdown decimates party vibe in soccer-crazy Melbourne ahead of Grand Final
MELBOURNE/GEELONG (AUSTRALIA) -Ahead of Australia’s biggest weekend of sport, normally hordes of soccer fans would descend on Gina Cimarosti’s pub in Melbourne. But the prolonged lockdown has kept the beer-taps dry at her watering hole and thrown a spanner in the works of the party vibe in the city.
Gina, who runs the London Tavern Hotel, says there is only meagre business of takeaway coffee and snacks from a window of the almost-a-century old institution in inner-city Richmond, earning just a fraction of what she used to during pre-pandemic times.
Normally, Melbourne’s hospitality sector eagerly awaits the Australian Football League (AFL) Grand Final, which begins on Saturday, as it is a big money-maker with locals and tourists thronging bars, restaurants and hotels.
The showpiece match of Australian Rules having moved to Brisbane because of the second wave of infections in Melbourne.
The huge Melbourne Cricket Ground, the traditional venue of the Grand Final, which is a short walk from Gina’s pub, is gathering dust.
“The Grand Final is usually the biggest day of our year,” she said.
“It’s hard not to lose a bit of faith … But we’re just trying to look forward.”
The city has mostly been under lockdown ever since March with just a few weeks of normalcy in between. In recent weeks, infections have slowed down and some curbs have been eased. But authorities are wary of opening up as fresh outbreaks are being reported in Europe and they do not want it to be repeated in Melbourne.
However, city residents are a frustrated lot after seeing their compatriots elsewhere leading normal lives.
For months at a stretch, there has been no sport with spectators in Melbourne. But a crowd of almost 30,000 fans will watch the AFL Grand Final at Brisbane’s Gabba.
For the National Rugby League’s season-ending Grand Final in Sydney on Sunday, a half-capacity crowd of 40,000 has been approved.
Both the AFL and the NRL have Melbourne teams, with the Richmond Tigers defending their AFL title against the Geelong Cats, and Melbourne Storm locking horns with Sydney-based Penrith Panthers for the NRL championship.
Football fans in Melbourne are unable to attend both games due to travel curbs and they face a fine of A$5,000 (2,721 pounds) in case they invite a friend home to watch the match.
Police said they would deploy drones and helicopters to watch for house parties and backyard barbecues which are the feature of a Grand Final.
“We will have a strong, dedicated and highly visible presence right from Geelong to Richmond … to ensure it is a safe day for everyone,” said a senior Victoria Police official.
There have been a handful of small protests in Melbourne against the lockdowns, but most people seem to comply with the curbs.
There is bitterness as thousands are jobless and many businesses have been forced to wind up. “We’ve got ‘COVID-safe’ plans to run our businesses but we’re being held hostage because (authorities) are worried they’re going to stuff it up again,” said a cafe owner in Richmond.
In Geelong, which is the home-town of the Cats, residents are enjoying a normal party vibe ahead of the Grand Final.
In the port city, which is an hour’s drive from Melbourne, pubs and eateries have been allowed to entertain 70 patrons outdoors and 40 indoors since curbs were eased on Monday and households can entertain five guests.
Grand Final eve on Friday is a traditional holiday and shops hung blue-and-white decorations, which are the colours of the Cats, and cafes filled their tables to the limit set by the officials.