While thousands of Victorians spent the final hours of 2020 in a frantic dash back over the New South Wales border, Daniel Forrest was enjoying a quieter night.
The 19-year-old from Wangaratta and his three mates saw in the new year from their Snowy River camping spot, about 10 kilometres into New South Wales — and without mobile phone reception.
They’d arrived there on December 28, and it was only as they travelled back into mobile phone reception on Saturday that they realised the world outside had changed.
“I had five missed calls from Mum from yesterday saying ‘you better get back, you better get back’, but I had no idea that we had to get back in time,” he said.
“We were just out there, sitting in the river and drinking beer and enjoying our New Year’s and come back and it’s sort of like [the John Marsden novel] Tomorrow, When the War Began and it’s all closed up again.”
With a hard border now in place, Victorian health authorities made clear on Saturday nobody would be crossing back into the state from NSW without an exemption.
“It’s very important now that anybody who’s in New South Wales who has a particular need or desire to come back to Victoria: do not come to the border,” Department of Health and Human Services COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar said.
“Do not get on a plane and try to get to the airport, you will be turned back.”
Mr Weimar said each exemption would be assessed by the Chief Health Officer or a delegate and would take at least 24 to 48 hours to complete.
Mr Forrest said his camping group did not encounter any other people during their trip, but he was told it could still take authorities up to five days to determine whether he could re-enter Victoria.
“We haven’t seen anyone, so there’s no way we could have contracted the virus, or anything at all,” he said.
On Saturday night, the group was preparing to camp at the Black Mountain checkpoint while they waited for an answer.
“We definitely don’t want to have to go into quarantine for 14 days,” he said.
Stuck in Sydney’s ‘limbo’
Melbourne musician Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich is stranded in Sydney (Penrith), after she said she used the only break from work for 2020 this year to see her family for Christmas.
“I cannot find a legal way to exit and get home to Melbourne where I live,” she said.
“I’ve been calling the DHHS every day since Boxing Day. I’ve applied for an exemption. I’m still waiting to hear back for that.
“I talked to someone about potentially hotel quarantining. I was prepared to do that. However, I’m not allowed to get on a plane from Sydney to Melbourne without a permit.
“I can’t apply for a permit without my exemption. Another DHHS worker suggested that I go quarantine in New South Wales but that was two days ago … before the situation changed.”
Ms Hellmrich said she was trying to stay optimistic but deep down was beginning to feel “very, very stressed” and “in limbo” as she waited for a response from authorities.
Wodonga, so near yet so far
Wodonga resident Marion Connors carefully planned her driving route to give Sydney a wide berth as she headed up to northern NSW for her first “real holiday” in about 20 years.
She left on December 21, judging that by sticking to remote and rural communities, she would be able to keep her planned trip low risk.
Then her car broke down on the same day Victoria made a snap decision to close its border to New South Wales within 48 hours.
“I just went into panic mode,” she said.
“I had to try and ring the hotline to find out what to do, because I was stuck. And I couldn’t get through to anyone. So I’ve been sitting here and waiting and trying to find out what to do.”
While authorities refer to the coronavirus hotline as the best source of tailored information for people affected by the latest restrictions, Ms Connors and others have experienced hours-long waits in the past few days.
“It kept saying, every time I rang, ‘due to the high volume of calls we cannot take your call right now, please try again later’,” she said.
“So I kept ringing and ringing and ringing. That was on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day and then finally this morning [Saturday] I managed to get through.”
Ms Connors is now waiting for the Victorian exemptions team to make a decision about whether she will be offered an exemption to return to her home in the Victorian border city of Wodonga.
She said she had considered the possibility of going to stay with her friends and family in Albury, Wodonga’s twin city on the New South Wales side.
“It seems silly that I can be so close to home, but yet I can’t get home or go to work,” she said.
“That’s the most frustrating part about the whole thing. And it’s circumstances beyond my control which have prevented me from getting home, and I don’t feel I should be punished for that.”