Postcards from the Edge No.46: Lockdown Life

Maybe the colder weather is playing a part, but three weeks into Melbourne’s second lockdown and things really don’t feel the same as the first. Yesterday marked what should be the halfway point but, with hundreds of new COVID-19 cases every day, there's concern this lockdown will last more than the scheduled six weeks. 

It feels like there’s a gloom hanging in the air, and that this time around no amount of online shopping for beer, books or rare seeds for exotic chillies that are unlikely to grow in Melbourne is going to help.

What's more, while online sales and beer subscriptions continue to flourish, chat to booze retailers or staff at those venues and breweries that have switched back to takeaway offerings and you'll often hear that, while the #keepinglocalalive message continues to resonate, patronage is down compared to first time around – and that Dry July is only partially responsible.

Is this gloom the result of the hundreds of positive cases a day? Is it the impact of seeing friends visit bars or breweries in other states? Or that many Melburnians are trying to undo the damage of Lockdown I with a Mk II health kick?

For me, it’s an inescapable heavy feeling at the back of the throat that flares up when Premier Dan Andrews appears on a stage at around 11am each day with an increasingly exhausted look on his face.

“I think there was this little taste of reality in the middle where everything felt normal and now it’s this,” says Stomping Ground's Cassie O’Neill, whose job usually sees her getting kegs into Melbourne’s venues.

She says, in part, there’s a sense of fatigue that many in the industry are feeling after four long months of coronavirus and the whirlwind of summer trade before that, a summer that – don't forget – was savaged by bushfires. 

“That is 100 percent the feeling; that people are just exhausted,” she says. “Some of these people haven’t had a break since before Christmas.”

 

Cassie O'Neill and (left) one of many limited release cans Stomping Ground have put out in recent months as they, like many others, keep new beers coming to keep drinkers buying.

 

Since the brewery launched in 2016, Stomping Ground's primary focus has been their home state, with Cassie saying Victorian sales make up well over 90 percent of the brewery’s sales. Recent weeks, however, have seen venues in other states making contact.

“We’ve found in the last few weeks, bars in Queensland and Western Australia have been hitting us up wanting to pour some kegs,” Cassie says, adding as any good sales rep would that, of course, more are available if any other interstate venues would like to get in touch.

"Obviously, in other states they’re pretty sympathetic to what’s going on here.”

Working in sales means the relationships that brewery reps and bar staff form are often incredibly tight-knit; in this new (ab)normal, Cassie says conversations with bartenders as they navigate the constantly shifting landscape has become one of the hardest issues.

“There’s our internal stuff going on [within Stomping Ground as a business] but me and the sales team also have the external part of it,” she says.  

“I’ve seen people open a bar – they put everything into it, it becomes really successful and you see the lifespan and these people become your really good friends.” 

The feeling is mirrored by Becky Centeno, who looks after Modus Operandi’s sales in Victoria. She was in a meeting when the second Melbourne wide lockdown was announced on July 7.  

“I was talking to a [venue] and you could feel their heart just drop and that just killed me,” she says. “And just talking to other on-premise accounts and hearing that defeat in their voices, that’s been really hard.

“I feel like this has been a bigger blow to the heart but what I can see so far is a lot of support. Still, only time will tell if some [venues] can stay open.”

Becky adds that, despite the challenges, businesses have again been quick to adapt, moving once more from filling pints to growlers. And the sense of community within the industry has helped keep things together too.

“Out of all this," she says, "the camaraderie, community and strength has been so overwhelming and so positive."

For bottleshops that are largely able to operate as normal, Becky says some are selling more than ever but others are being cautious with their ordering as the future remains so unpredictable.   

Cassie says some of the bars she works with have chosen not to reopen this time around as this shutdown hammers home the message that periods of opening then shutting again might be a reality for many months to come – and serves as a warning to people in other states untouched by this wave of the pandemic.

“A lot of people are just hunkering down now and a lot of them are not bothering to do the takeaway because they were barely breaking even and they were working all day and night,” Cassie says.

“But I think people now are stopping, evaluating everything, and hoping that everything opens back up again.”

 

Becky (second from the right) in less physically restrictive times with the Pink Boots Society's Flora Ghisoni, Kate Burke and Michelle Vanspall.

 

For me, supporting a local brewery or venue feels like it needs to be done differently this time around. Masks are mandatory and putting one on to cycle to a brewery when people can’t get into a nursing home to see their parents feels, to put it bluntly, grotesque. A health crisis that's also an economic crisis makes balancing the desire to help local businesses difficult when the state premier is on the news every morning saying don't leave the house unless you absolutely need to. 

That said, putting it rather less bluntly, the need to stay home as much as possible has crossed Cassie’s mind too.

“I’m trying to go to the bottleshop or a brewery once a week," she says. "I think people were using it as an excuse to get out of the house: ‘I won’t get everything now because I won’t have anything to do for the next five days.’

“I think people are definitely more scared; I live in Collingwood and the streets are quieter than they were a few weeks ago.”

She says it highlights how the switch to online beer sales is likely to outlast COVID, too. For a week now, masks have been mandated across the city; it's sensible health advice but can make that trip to a bottleshop rather less pleasant.

Becky points to the fact that in her home city of New York people have embraced mask-wearing and shown a willingness to continue to visit stores and to do so as safely as possible. 

“I think over time people will get used to the idea of masks and they’re not going away any time soon,” she says. “I’m hopeful people will still feel encouraged to go out safely and support local but the atmosphere is so unknown.”

While some Stomping Ground customers are still buying kegs, Cassie says it’s become harder to check how they're faring in terms of personal wellbeing. With the first lockdown happening so fast, Stomping Ground had a lot of kegs in the market and the process of accepting kegs back and offering credits gave her a good excuse to see how everyone was doing.

“I’m trying to check in without being overbearing because they obviously have a lot on their hands,” Cassie says. “But it’s just not the same as calling in, having a beer together and shooting the shit.”

Looking ahead to a time when Melbourne and Mitchell Shire move out of stage 3 and venues start to reopen, Becky suggests the restrictions – particularly around physical distancing – may make things tough (not that some venues under lesser restrictions seem to be paying close attention if a scan of social media posts is anything to go by).

“No matter how you dice it," she says, "it’s going to be a very hard road.”

For Becky, working for a brewery based outside Victoria gave her the ability to redirect kegs interstate and she's received support from Modus HQ too: “They check in a lot on me which is great," she says.

“I really hope that everyone really takes time to take care of themselves this time in Victoria. I think this go around is a bit murkier and, now more than ever, we need to check in on each other and also really self-reflect and take care of ourselves.”

When venues can open again, Cassie is confident people will head back out, however, as they did during that fleeting window between lockdowns.  

“In the first two or three weeks where things opened here, I had some of my customers order more kegs than they ever had,” she says.

“Melbourne is all about hospitality and people know who is a good operator, who gives a shit, so I’m sure when places open they will be full.

“We just have to keep our fingers crossed that it won’t be too long.”


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As part of the #keepinglocalalive campaign we're running Postcards from the Edge stories, highlighting the ways in which people are adapting to survive. If you've got a story you think is suitable – or have something to add to the campaign resources online – get in touch.

You'll find a detailed rundown of how Victorian breweries and venues are adapting to Lockdown II here and can drop us a line if you want to be added.

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