Melburnians trying to escape to holiday homes following the easing of restrictions in regional Victoria will face hefty fines and beefed up police road checks amid fears they could spread the coronavirus.
In regional Victoria from Thursday, residents can have visitors to their homes, restaurants and cafes can have seated indoor and outdoor dining, beauty services can reopen and people can gather in groups of ten outside.
However, Premier Daniel Andrews warned Melburnians could not travel to the regions without a lawful reason.
« This is very serious, very, very serious, » Mr Andrews said. « We cannot have people making unnecessary and unlawful trips to regional Victoria and potentially taking the virus with them. »
Mr Andrews said this would result in « significant queues », but regional Victorians « jealously guard » their low virus status and wanted to keep it that way.
Overall, there were 42 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Victoria on Tuesday and no deaths for the first time in more than two months.
Regional Victoria’s restrictions were further eased after it reached a 14-day average of 3.6 new daily COVID-19 cases.
Melbourne’s 14-day average stands at 52.9 daily cases, with Mr Andrews confirming the city was on track to partially ease restrictions on September 28, although, even then, regional Victorians will still be enjoying far more freedoms.
« I think, in a sense, what regional Victoria are doing now will be a dry run for what will happen in Melbourne, » Mr Andrews said. « I expect that we’ll be making the same sort of assessment, hopefully in a number of weeks’ time, to say that it’s safe for Melbourne to open up. »
The Premier also flagged measures to prevent people travelling to second homes in the Mornington Peninsula – which is classified as part of metropolitan Melbourne – during the school holidays and warmer weather.
« That’s simply not on. That puts everything at risk. It’s unnecessary movement. It’s unlawful movement. And it should not be happening, » Mr Andrews said.
Mornington Peninsula mayor Sam Hearn said the area was inundated with people rushing to their holiday homes earlier this year when stage three restrictions were announced.
He said extensive road blocks would be required on arterial roads such as Peninsula Link to ensure Melburnians were following the ban on moving to second residences.
Under the eased restrictions in regional Victoria, households can select one other household to be in a so-called bubble. The households are then permitted to visit each other, with a maximum of five visitors.
Outdoor sport can resume and there will be a staged return to school for all regional students in the first two weeks of term four.
Restaurants and cafes will be able to seat up to 50 people outside and up to 20 people inside – although the indoor seating must be separated into two spaces.
Regional Cities Victoria chair Margaret O’Rourke said the reopening meant local economies and communities could begin to recover.
« We really want to encourage people living in regional Victoria to visit other parts of regional Victoria from this Thursday, » she said.
Victorian Tourism Industry Council chief executive Felicia Mariani said many businesses would need until the weekend to reopen, after standing staff down, reducing stock and shutting down their operations.
Businesses were also waiting for guidelines on how to resume their operations safely, she said. « People want to understand what they need to do to comply with the new rules, » she said. « We need to be careful. Everyone, including consumers, has a responsibility here. »
Victorian Nationals leader Peter Walsh said families would still have to make painful choices about which loved ones could attend weddings, funerals and religious ceremonies « under severe restrictions on public gatherings ».
« Despite very low case numbers across regional Victoria, dining restrictions will force our local cafes and restaurants to make tough decisions on whether it’s viable to open after months of little to no income, » he said.
Greater Geelong mayor Stephanie Asher said she supported the government’s promise to prevent people from rushing to their holiday homes, although she understood why Melburnians would want to enjoy the freedom in beachside communities.
« We certainly don’t want to end up in lockdown, » she said. « It does need to be managed for the safety of all people. »
But Cr Asher said there had already been a substantial increase in people in Greater Geelong, which includes the seaside communities of Ocean Grove and Barwon Heads on the Bellarine Peninsula.
Maggie Fooke, owner of the Northern Arts Hotel in Castlemaine, welcomed the chance to reopen but said her business was largely dependent on visitors from Melbourne.
Ms Fooke said she was ready to reopen the accommodation at the hotel immediately and hoped to resume serving drinks in coming weeks.
But she doubted whether people in regional Victoria would be rushing out to take holidays immediately and may prefer to catch up with friends in their communities first.
« Local people would like to see each other again, » she said. « I think people are looking forward to being a little bit more mobile in our own communities. »
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Jewel Topsfield is a senior reporter at The Age. She has worked in Melbourne, Canberra and Jakarta as Indonesia correspondent. She has won multiple awards including a Walkley and the Lowy Institute Media Award.
Benjamin is The Age’s regional editor. He was previously state rounds reporter and has also covered education for The Age.
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