The Mayor of Byron Bay has hit back at officials who he says are “dividing” the community after 250 anti-lockdown protesters gathered in the beach town on the weekend, despite it being free from lockdowns.
On Monday morning, Employment Minister Stuart Robert called Byron Bay’s low vaccination rate of just over 31 per cent “nuts” on Channel Nine’s Today show.
He said “people need to understand in Byron Bay and northern New South Wales that white flowing linen is not going to protect you from COVID”.
But Byron Shire Mayor Michael Lyon told The New Daily scornful comments from out of town were only stoking divisions in the community and failed to address vaccine supply issues.
“They’re trying to blame us and our community, which is more division and more of that sort of shaming tactic when the reality is, it’s the government that’s failed on the supply level,” Cr Lyon said.
Cr Lyon pointed to vaccine shipments that the NSW government had diverted to hotspots in Sydney.
“How are we meant to get to the double-dose targets that the Premier is talking about when they’re not giving us the supply?” he said.
“I think it’s really disappointing, when it’s categorised solely as vaccine hesitancy.”
Although AstraZeneca vaccine doses are available in the region, supplies of the Pfizer vaccine are relatively scarce.
Other leaders have pointed to what they say is heavy-handed policing as a source of division in the town.
At the anti-lockdown protest on Saturday, police arrested 11 people and issued 28 fines.
Local lawyer Mark Swivel, who heads the Barefoot Law community legal clinic in Mullumbimby, told TND that the number of police deployed at the small protest sent a bad message to an anxious community.
“The irony of lockdown having been lifted the week before the protest is pretty obvious,” Mr Swivel said.
“The nuances and detail are not the point.
“You’ve got some people who’ve fallen into this position of just, effectively, being p—ed off. And they want the world to know they’re p—ed off.”
Mr Swivel, who has worked with some of these people in his practice and is now running for Mayor, said footage of police and protesters clashing in Melbourne only fanned the flames up in Byron Bay.
He said there needs to be a rethink of how law enforcement responds to these types of gatherings.
In addition to protests and low vaccination rates, COVID fragments were also detected in the region’s sewage late last week.
Calls for community engagement
Against all of this, the Mayor dismissed the potential restart of intrastate tourism in mid-October as “fanciful”.
He is keen to keep the community unified during the pandemic, and is careful not to shame the protesters who he says might have legitimate, albeit misplaced, grievances.
But with vaccine passports on the horizon, Cr Lyon and others are anticipating further community outcry in the near future.
“I can safely say that there will be resistance, whatever the vaccine passports look like,” Mr Swivel said.
Although Byron Bay residents have more freedoms than those living in Melbourne and Sydney, Mr Swivel says more work needs to be done to make sure people are onboard with future COVID rules.
“Lecturing this community and chastising them in the way that the Premier has tried at times is understandable, but it’s going to be ineffective,” he said.
“You really need education, on the ground, in the streets – practically in people’s houses if you ask me. So it’s about education, not enforcement.”