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Coronavirus restrictions in regional Victoria are easing, but Melbourne's 'ring of steel' means not everyone can celebrate

Regional Victoria's dance studios, swimming schools and indoor sport centres are celebrating their reopening. But tourism operators say they need to know when they'll be able to take bookings from Melburnians.

Victoria's coastal holiday towns are usually heaving with Melburnians during the spring long weekends, and Emma Malone was looking forward to welcoming city folk back to Queenscliff.

Key points:
  • Regional Victoria has fewer restrictions than Melbourne, with much lower case numbers
  • Some businesses can reopen today as rules ease again
  • Tourism operators say they need to know when Melburnians will be able to travel

Ms Malone is a manager at the Big4 Beacon Resort in the Bellarine Peninsula town, where accommodation was heavily booked ahead of the coming AFL grand final weekend.

But yesterday's announcement — which fortified the "ring of steel" around the city — wiped out almost all of those bookings straight away.

"We're so disappointed," Ms Malone said. "We're essentially missing out on another two peak long weekends, with grand final coming up and Melbourne Cup."

Many Melburnians had made travel plans based on the state's original roadmap out of restrictions, she said.

"I've just gone through and cancelled all our bookings for the grand final weekend. We've left the Melbourne Cup ones there in the hope something might change, but a lot of them have started ringing to cancel."

The lack of certainty makes it difficult to know what to do with Christmas bookings, too.

"That's fully booked at the moment but, again, it will be predominantly Melbourne people," she said. "So if we miss that one, that's when we'll start to really think we'll be in real dire straits. Not just us, the whole community."

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With very little interstate travel, and nobody coming in from overseas, tourism businesses across Victoria are feeling similar pain.

Operators are ready to follow COVID-safe procedures and run below capacity, but there was "really no relief" for them in the state's new roadmap, Victorian Tourism Industry Council chief executive Felicia Mariani said.

The organisation wants to know when intrastate travel bans will be lifted, so outdoor summer events can be planned.

"That is the key thing that affects our industry," she said.

"In working with many of our industry colleagues we are pushing for a date, and looking for October 30 as that date, for the lifting of travel restrictions."

But it's not all bad news in regional Victoria

While some businesses face an uncertain and stressful future, others are celebrating.

At Lakes Entrance in East Gippsland, dance studio owner Bobbie Hall said the news she could open classes for students under 18 was a relief.

Five young women smile as they stand in a line in a dance studio.Five young women smile as they stand in a line in a dance studio.
Bobbie Hall (centre) with staff at her dance studio, are excited to start teaching junior classes again.(Supplied: Bobbie Hall)

"It was sheer bliss watching the announcements," Ms Hall said. "I did a few fist pumps in the air when he gave us the date we could open our classes to our under 18 students."

An online petition to reopen dance studios, started by Ms Hall, had garnered more than 17,000 signatures.

"The mental health stability for our students is one of the big reasons we've been pushing to get our industry recognised," she said.

Further west, Traralgon swim centre owner Brian Ford was also pleased he would again be able to welcome young swimmers back.

From today, indoor pools in regional Victoria can reopen to people under the age of 18, with a maximum of 20 swimmers.

Mr Ford said it was a welcome change.

"Eighteen and under is a good age to choose because it's the vast majority of our learn-to-swim business," he said.

"That's the age that's most vulnerable when we're coming towards summer and the dangers around water."

Two men wearing at the reception desk of an indoor poolTwo men wearing at the reception desk of an indoor pool
Ford Swim Centre owner Brian Ford and employee Cam Juha are pleased young swimmers can return.(ABC Gippsland: Jarrod Whittaker)

While Mr Ford was part of attempts to lobby the government to re-open indoor pools, he said the announcement came out of the blue.

"It's been kept very quiet," he said.

"I'm part of the Victorian Aquatic Industry Alliance and we've been making lots of progress with the Government, but there's been no indication that pools were going to reopen, so for regional to open it's a bit of a surprise," he said.

One-on-one hydrotherapy will also be allowed in regional Victoria.

Restaurants, pubs to welcome more customers

In Sale, also in Gippsland, pub owner Chad De Lany said increased capacity for hospitality businesses was welcome.

Pubs, restaurants and cafes can now seat up to 70 customers outdoors and 40 customers indoors.

Mr De Lany said business had been strong at his pub, the Criterion Hotel, since predominantly outdoor dining was reopened.

"We've been hitting our limited capacity on the weekend, which has been fantastic, and we have been turning people away at times so the demand is there," he said.

A man wearing a face stands behind a bar in a pub.A man wearing a face stands behind a bar in a pub.
Chad De Lany at the Criterion Hotel in Sale, Victoria, which he owns, on October 18, 2020.(ABC Gippsland: Rio Davis)

But Mr De Lany said he thought the increased capacity didn't go far enough.

He said his pub's outdoor capacity was weather dependent, and the cap didn't work for large pubs like his, which were set up for much larger customer numbers.

"When we were open last time there was one person per 4 square metres indoors, so that gave you different capacity," he said.

"It also meant that each venue would be different with how many people they could hold. Whereas now it doesn't matter how many rooms you have, it is only the 40 [people] indoors."

He said he would like to see regional Victorian businesses follow what had been done in NSW.

New restrictions see regional Victoria go it alone

Indoor pools, dance studios and pubs were some of the beneficiaries of the Victorian Government's decision to significantly alter its plan for regional Victoria.

Under the state's original roadmaps out of restrictions, regional Victoria was to remain at its previous restriction level and wait for Melbourne to catch up.

Once Melbourne reached step three, which was planned for October 26 if numbers were low enough, intrastate travel was to be allowed.

The whole state was then expected to move to the final step in restrictions, once there had been a fortnight without any cases.

Premier Daniel Andrews moved Melbourne's date to ease restrictions forward to October 19, but the city wasn't quite able to meet the case number targets, with a fortnightly daily average of 7.5 cases and 15 mystery cases.

Yesterday, Mr Andrews announced his new roadmap would see regional Victoria and Melbourne continue on different paths, due to the much lower levels of the virus in regional Victoria.

The stronger border between the capital city and its regions is designed to allow more restrictions to ease outside of Melbourne.

"There will be more checkpoints and more cars pulled over and we are able to take these steps in regional Victoria, like 40 people inside a pub, because it is a lower-virus community than Melbourne," he said.

Mr Andrews said that border would remain in place as long as it was necessary.

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