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Anger in Shepparton after one man's 'ignorance' brings virus to town

Business owner left 'shocked and gutted' after her cafe was identified as a high-risk location following an outbreak of coronavirus in the regional city.

Authorities released a list of high-risk locations on Tuesday night, saying they expected to find more cases. The matter has been referred to the Department of Health and Human Services, which could send it to police.

Long queues formed at three testing sites in Shepparton on Wednesday. Police reportedly told people at the back of one queue to go home or face a six-hour wait. At 2.30pm, residents were told the Goulburn Valley Health site had reached capacity.

Leanne Stride, owner of the Lemon Tree Cafe, said she "shocked and gutted" after her cafe was identified as a high-risk location following the outbreak.

Ms Stride said while regular customers had been wonderful and supportive, she was worried the outbreak might spook others.

“Things have been going so well here and now we’re gutted because the town isn’t even responsible for [the outbreak],” Ms Stride said.

“The ignorance of this man coming into the region has now affected businesses and people’s livelihoods.”

John Anderson, a pharmacist and president of the Shepparton Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said people were frustrated and angry.

“Our citizens here and our businesses here have been following the requirements,” he said.

Mr Anderson said the outbreak came on top of existing frustrations with COVID-19 restrictions, which would continue to grow if the outbreak jeopardised the chances of the rules being relaxed for the city along with other regional areas.

The pharmacist said testing clinics in Shepparton were “absolutely overwhelmed” at midday.

“They’re handing out water to people because they’re in the sun and they’ve been in queues since nine o’clock this morning.”

Furious locals vented their anger at the man who sparked the outbreak while they waited to be tested.

"It's disgusting, it's dishonest," one told Channel Nine. "I think he should be jailed."

Shepparton businesses, many of them recently reopened, face the prospect of closing down again or trimming their operations while staff get tested for COVID-19 and isolate.

Sam Birrell, chief executive of the Committee for Greater Shepparton, said business owners had been proactive, "but obviously they're gearing up for having staff off while the tests come back".

"It's hard to know what will happen. We'll find out with the test results," he said.

"The major parts of the Shepparton economy are agriculture, manufacturing and health care, so those industries have been going along well all year – in some cases they had to ramp up. But it's worrying for hospitality businesses who have just reopened."

Azem Elmaz, owner of Lutfiye Shish Kebab, said the streets of Shepparton had been unusually empty since the announcement.

Police reportedly told people at the end of the queue to go home and come back on Thursday.

Police reportedly told people at the end of the queue to go home and come back on Thursday.Credit:Nine News

“The town has become very quiet, very silent.” Mr Elmaz said. “It is really good in one way, people should stay home, they should be careful of what they do.”

He said he had seen hundreds, if not thousands, at the Shepparton Showgrounds queuing up for testing.

“I thought it was the Shepp Show today. It’s good that people want to get tested and make sure everything is OK.”

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Mr Elmaz said while he would be alright if the city didn’t continue to ease restrictions, he was worried for other business owners who were in a more vulnerable position.

“I’m doing OK but I feel sorry for people who are starting new businesses and new families,” he said. “People have loans for their business and for their house. This will hit them hard.”

One of the more significant challenges facing authorities trying to contain the Shepparton outbreak is getting the message out to the city's many cultural and linguistic groups.

Ethnic Council of Shepparton manager Chris Hazelman said about 10 per cent of the population was made up of former refugees and their families, mostly from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, the Congo and Iran.

He said that since the beginning of the pandemic the council had been "saturating" social media with COVID-safe messaging and meeting face-to-face with families where appropriate .

Despite cases of COVID-19, the city has so far been successful in stopping large outbreaks.

"We've pushed the message pretty strongly, recognising a lot of people in our community are from larger families, which can bring overcrowding," he said.

"There's the language issue we've got to get past and a lot of people in casualised labour – all the elements of concern."

Mr Hazelman said the summer fruit season, which fuels SPC's massive canning factory in the centre of town, would also soon attract more people into the area and required an added layer of vigilance.

He said authorities had "absolutely" stepped up in Shepparton once the most recent outbreak was apparent.

"We've participated in a number of meetings with DHHS, GV Health, Victoria Police and City of Greater Shepparton making sure we do have information flow and consistent messaging," he said.

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Zach is a reporter at The Age. Got a story? Email me at zach.hope@theage.com.au

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