News Empty streets, queues and fear: Snapshots of a city under viral siege
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Empty streets, queues and fear: Snapshots of a city under viral siege

All Melbourne beaches were closed after images of a crowded St Kilda beach went viral on Thursday afternoon. Photo: Else Kennedy
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As protocols around self-isolation and social distancing dial-up by the day, how are Melburnians responding?

Many honour rules to the letter, edgy and insistent. Others range from the stubbornly ignorant to the crankily recalcitrant.

Most people are complying, but scenes at St Kilda beach last week and over the weekend showed that some are still struggling to adhere to this new reality.

A team of reporters from The Citizen used the opportunity of their essential outings over the past few days to file intimate observations of a population adapting – and not – to a moment of seismic social and economic change.

Toorak Village, 11.15am, Friday.

At a bakery in Toorak Village, people are keeping a comfortable distance as they queue for pastries.

It’s warm, and just beginning to cloud over when a well-dressed woman in her mid-’70s marches to the front of the queue where a customer is in the middle of ordering.

“Are you no longer taking cash?” she asks.

The man behind the counter says the bakery is moving to a cashless system to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“Well, you won’t be having my business then,” responds the woman.

The man appears to be a junior employee, but he apologises about the changes. The woman continues to stand there, seemingly unaware of the customer next to her.

Oh that’s fine, thank you,” she says after a few moments, before turning on her heel. “I just won’t ever shop here again.”

Merri Creek, Northcote, 1PM, Friday.

On Sunday Scott Morrison announced playgrounds would be closed. Photo: Fia Walsh

Down along the Merri Creek track at lunchtime on Friday things are hectic, especially with a seven-month-old Goldendoodle in tow.

The track is crowded with joggers, parents pushing prams, and small groups of friends zig zagging well within 1.5 metres of each other. It is a miracle the dog doesn’t bowl a few of them over.

The playground behind Northcote High School has tape around it warning people to stay-off, but there are two families playing inside and a man doing pull-ups on the monkey bars.

At the CERES community grocery each customer is urged to take a pump of hand sanitiser and rub it in thoroughly before they enter.

There are ‘X’s painted on the ground marking the spots people can safely stand 1.5 metres apart to help with social distancing, and aisles are blocked off to steer shoppers around a one-way route.

But at the till the layout is so confusing that people have started to double back through the shop, turning their heads as they squeeze by.

Southbank, 4PM, Friday. 

In Southbank, a scattered few enjoy the afternoon sun. Photo: Wing Kuang

At Southbank, the usually crowded long walk along the Yarra River has become quiet and empty.

With Crown Casino shut, the long taxi line outside the ordinarily pulsing venue is no longer there. Bars and restaurants are all closed, with their tables and chairs piled up outdoors.

There is still one ice cream shop open, with a few people waiting for their warm-weather treats — two metres outside the stall.

Usually, on a sunny day, the riverside would be closely populated with people sitting on the grass and enjoying the view, but today there is just a solitary lady perched among an undisturbed flock of seagulls. She’s nursing a beer.

A stone’s throw distant, a couple sit on the bench huddling against one another.

Coburg Farmer’s Market, 11AM, Saturday.

One woman almost causes a scene at Coburg Farmers Market when she fails to keep a 1.5m distance. Photo: Claire Capel-Stanley

Pastries are in short supply at Coburg Farmer’s Market, which is enforcing social distancing with card-only sales, hand sanitising on arrival and very little food being offered to eat on-the-go.

One volunteer is zealously urging even single patrons not to sit down as part of the new social distancing requirements – all part of the ‘get in, get out’ strategy due to coronavirus.

Despite the measures, a bottleneck at the cash register of a vegetable seller causes one shopper to yell out.

Social distancing! The line is over there!”

A woman, apparently ignoring the guidance to remain two arms’ lengths away from all other humans, has craned her neck over an elderly couple’s freshly-purchased celery to inspect the produce.

She is duly tutted to the back of the line and forced to wait at her designated witch’s hat as the queue creeps forward in 1.5-metre increments.

All Nations Park, Northcote, 12.15PM, Saturday.

“They’re closing down everything you can touch,” said a man who was using the outdoor gym. Photo: Benjamin Silvester

Both men are trying to ignore the white ute that has just pulled up beside the astroturf bearing decals on the doors – “City of Darebin”.

A man in lurid hi-vis and work boots steps out and walks over to the die-hard, who after a short conversation reluctantly dismounts the bright orange bike. He walks past, his grey singlet dark with sweat.

“They’re closing down everything you can touch,” he says. “You’re still allowed to walk, apparently.”

As he wanders off, the council worker pulls out a sledgehammer to ram a long metal stake into the ground with a sign saying the gym is closed until further notice.

“We apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

A sign at All Nations Park explaining the public gym is closed. Photo: Benjamin Silvester

Williamstown Beach, 1.30PM, Saturday.

Williamstown beach, popular with families from Melbourne’s working-class western suburbs, is closed on Saturday, with four security guards in high-vis vests guarding the walkways down to the sand.

The promenade is busy with strolling couples and small family groups clutching hot chips and ice cream from the beachside takeaway.

One man who defied the beach closure to walk along the sand is marched off the beach by a security guard.

Most beachgoers keep their distance from other people, but there are others gathered on patches of lawn and beside rock pools further down the bay.

A beachgoer is given his marching orders. Photo: Else Kennedy

Westfield Airport West, 11AM, Sunday.

At the shopping centre in Airport West, business has waned, but there’s still a staggering number of people out.

Despite advice to leave children at home, whole families continue to pour through the doors to stock up at Coles, the kids touching everything in sight.

At the pharmacy opposite, many of the elderly regulars continue to come and pick up their scripts themselves. Some come in almost every day.

At the Coles, toilet paper is back in stock, but the pharmacy’s repeated pleas to suppliers for stocks of masks and hand sanitiser have gone unanswered.

Coburg, 3.30PM, Sunday.

An artistic vandal takes advantage of the empty streets, hitting light posts, fences, power boxes with his marker in broad daylight.

People who might usually look askance at this walk past with their heads down, paying him no mind.

He says he’s noticed lots of impressive pieces popping up in places that would usually be “too hot” to bother with.

Yarraville, 1.30PM, Monday.

This morning, walking along Stony Creek in Yarraville, my friend and I pass the Charlotte Street playground. An adult is supervising three young children as they climb, swing and slide across the playground.

My friend says she’s seen families there every day this past week, trying to wear out their cooped-up children. On Sunday night Scott Morrison declared that playgrounds would now be closed across the country.

There’s no evidence of that coming into force at Charlotte Street.

This story is co-published with The Citizen, a publication of the University of Melbourne Centre for Advancing Journalism. 

By Benjamin Silvester, Jess Cockerill, Else Kennedy, Fia Walsh, Wing Kuang, Claire Capel-Stanley, Alyssa Herr, Bianca Roberts.