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Will Melbourne ever be the same again post COVID lockdown?

Will Melbourne bounce back once it has conquered the coronavirus pandemic, or will COVID-19 leave lasting scars on the city, just as the virus appears to do on many of the people who survive it? Opinions are mixed.

Will Melbourne bounce back once it has conquered the coronavirus pandemic, or will COVID-19 leave lasting scars on the city, just as the virus appears to do on many of the people who survive it?

Key points:
  • The pressure is on to revive Melbourne and get people confident to head back into the CBD
  • Major events like the Australian Open and Grand Prix will go ahead, but with far lower numbers
  • Events in regional Victoria are also still under planning, with state border closures having an impact

On Wednesday, Victoria recorded its fifth straight day of no new cases of coronavirus and no deaths after Melburnians spent their first weekend out of lockdown.

The pressure is now on for economic recovery, with businesses and the city hoping that people will now be confident to head back into the CBD.

This year, the city lost out on major money-making events including the Grand Prix, Melbourne International Comedy Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival.

And with the future of major sporting and cultural events still up in the air, and city offices still closed, businesses are struggling.

But there's hope. Owner of restaurant Bar Lourinha in Melbourne's CBD, Joanne Gamvros, has had loyal customers wanting to stand outside and have a drink — even before she's officially opened her doors.

"There's genuine excitement," she told ABC News.

"Those who live in the city really just want to just get back out in the city. And the fact they've been told they're allowed to, it's like, 'oh my god serve me a drink! I can't wait!'".

Albert Park circuit during qualifying on March 17, 2012.Albert Park circuit during qualifying on March 17, 2012.
This year the city lost out on major money-making events such as the Melbourne Grand Prix.(Getty Images: Mark Thompson)
Anticipation stifled by health concerns

Ms Gamvros says despite the anticipation, the absence of office workers, tourists and major events has hurt.

"We were in a buzz situation before COVID happened," she said.

"We had so much to look forward to — the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival, Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the tennis — and it all just disappeared.

"It's a major impact. The Melbourne city thrives on that entertainment happening and we always had a beautiful influx of in and out customers into our business."

For Melburnians still unsure about how safe it is to get out, a new advertising campaign called "Let's Melbourne Again" aims to entice them back.

The advertising campaign includes messages familiar to people who live in the city, such as, "Let's get ready to chuck hook turns in the rain" and "let's order obnoxious coffees".

Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp says more than 150 events that would normally happen from March through August were cancelled.

Lady standing at Melbourne Town Hall smiling at the camera.Lady standing at Melbourne Town Hall smiling at the camera.
Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp says more than 150 events that would normally happen in March through August were cancelled, but they are planning anew for the summer.(Chris Le Page)

But now there's planning behind the scenes to allow major sporting events, including the Boxing Day Test cricket match, Australian Open tennis tournament and Grand Prix formula 1 car race, to take place over summer and next year.

"For the Boxing Day Test, we would expect to have 70,000 people each day, but it's anticipated, and being planned for 20,000 people to attend that event," Ms Capp said.

"With the Australian Open, normally 800,000 people [attend] over the course of the tournament. Moving forward, the scenario planning is to welcome about 200,000 people."

Melbourne City Council also holds its own events.

"As we lead into Christmas, we are still planning for the Melbourne Fashion Week, for Melbourne Music Week and we are currently getting organised for our Christmas extravaganza," Ms Capp said, noting that the Christmas event alone would typically generate about $73 million of economic activity.

Turning dining inside out, creating space

Federation Square chief executive Xavier Csar said they have turned dining inside out and opened up additional outdoor space.

They hope this will help drive people back to the square, which annually sees about 10 million people walk through.

Man holds his hands out with Federation Square in the backdrop.Man holds his hands out with Federation Square in the backdrop.
Federation Square chief executive Xavier Csar says they have turned dining inside out and opened up additional space at the square.(Chris Le Page)

Events at the square alone attract between 2.5 million and 3 million attendees each year.

"We've got those large community events which [for just one event] can have tens and tens of thousands of people in attendance — so it rocks — and of course we are not seeing that now and we are not going to see that as pre-COVID [number] for some time," Mr Csar said.

"What you'll see is a lower intensity, fewer numbers, but still people able to come and enjoy what Melbourne has to offer. "

A sign at Federation Square after Melburnians came out of lockdown in early November says A sign at Federation Square after Melburnians came out of lockdown in early November says
A sign at Federation Square after Melburnians came out of lockdown in early November.(Nassim Khadem)

The CBD's revival is critical to leading the state out of recession.

In 2020 alone, the City of Melbourne is projected to lose up to 75,000 jobs, with 250,000 job losses forecast in the rest of Victoria.

And a recent report developed by PwC for the council predicted the city's economic output could be reduced by up to $110 billion over the next five years.

But it's not just city events that hang in the balance — many regional events are also awaiting sign-off.

Regional events being planned

Michael Newton is the promoter of A Day on the Green, which each hosts food, wine and music festivals across Victoria, including in regional areas, as well as in other states.

He said state border closures meant they had to put all their planned concerts on hold.

And in some cases they may not be able to break even to put on a show once they account for the costs of hiring artists, security, fencing, traffic management, infrastructure and adhering to social distancing restrictions.

"There's practical and significant economic challenges to doing a show from now on," Mr Newton said.

"We have to look at the numbers and see how that relates to the cost of putting on an outdoor show.

Normally they would run about 30 concerts running each year, but now there are none.

"We already had to postpone Rod Stewart and Simple Minds," he said.

"We cancelled James Blunt. And all we can do now is plan for what will be a likely scenario — maybe looking at some shows for the first quarter of next year."

Crowds at the event.Crowds at the event.
A Day on the Green event at Rochford Wines, Yarra Valley in February 2018.(MCH_Mushroom House Creative)
Read more about coronavirus:Live music and more fun on the Yarra River

For the City of Melbourne the plan is to revive arts and culture with smaller outdoor events and live music.

"We are entering into summer now, which makes the conditions for a return far better, because you can have a lot more activity outside," said Committee for Melbourne chief executive Martine Letts.

"There will be more events, more activities out on the streets to compliment the dining facilities and other things that you can do."

Longer term there could be more activity along the Yarra, bringing Melbourne into line with water-friendly cities like Sydney and Brisbane.

Ms Letts says Melbourne is one of the few global cities that doesn't make the best use of its river.

"If you could have more commuting and taxi services to the Yarra, that links Chapel Street through to the sporting precincts through to the arts precincts right out to the harbour, wouldn't that be wonderful?"

Lady wearing pink suit standing by the bridge with Southbank and the Yarra River in the background.Lady wearing pink suit standing by the bridge with Southbank and the Yarra River in the background.
Committee for Melbourne CEO Martine Letts says Melbourne is one of the few global cities that doesn't make the best use of its river.(Chris Le Page)

Yearning for Melbourne's glory days

Joanne Gamvros said it would take time for activity to ramp up and Melbourne to return to its glory days.

"I think it might take a long time," she said.

"I think it could take two years, maybe more, to get back to what we were pre-COVID."

On November 8, the Premier will announce further easing of restrictions that could help build the positivity.

Fed Square's Xavier Csar says next year would not just be a return to how life was.

"Next year will be 2020.2," he said. "It'll be a variation.

"It's true to say that we will never forget what a pandemic can do. We will never forget what it's like to be shut in. And we will never forget what we've missed.

"But the scarring of that is caused by the absence of what we love. And what we love is entertainment and vibrancy, gatherings and culture, and art and sport — and being able to do these things in what is the world's greatest city."

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