Jackey Desai is cleaning his espresso machine and preparing to close for the day at the Area Four cafe on Little Bourke Street right in the centre of Melbourne’s central business district.
It’s 12pm. Not even lunchtime.
On a normal day, the streets and alleyways around this well known Melbourne thoroughfare are packed with office workers lined up outside cafes and restaurants , chatting.
On a normal day, it would be rush hour for Deasai. But Friday is not a normal day. His cafe is empty.
Jackey Desai, owner of Area Four Cafe laments the almost complete lack of clientele. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian
“Very very dead,” Desai says. “Super quiet. Yesterday I was open from 7.30 until 12 in the afternoon, and I made $30.” Pre-pandemic his average taking was $1,200.
The streets of Melbourne are now empty, save for a steady flow of masked-up delivery drivers, construction workers, and police patrolling on horseback, or accompanied by army officers.
Two women out for a run on LaTrobe Street – using one of the four reasons you’re allowed to leave home – are rugged up in North Face puffer jackets, tights, gloves and beanies for the brisk Victorian winter, masks covering their faces. One kicks the pedestrian button at the traffic lights in a move that has become all-too familiar.
Chinatown. On Friday, the second full day of enforced stage four restrictions, the Melbourne CBD is almost totally devoid of people and is patrolled by police on horseback and members of the defence force. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian
At this point it is cliche to compare it to the set of a post-apocalyptic movie, but it’s the most common reference for the few who venture into the CBD. Most shops are shut, a few have vacated entirely. Melbourne City Council says pedestrian traffic is down 90%.
Melbourne Central, a major shopping complex in the CBD is open but deserted. The few workers who remain duck into the food court for takeaways.
The only sounds are from drills and cranes on construction sites, and the occasional distant familiar ding of a tram bell to remind you that, yes, this is still Melbourne.
The normally bustling Bourke Street, in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian
It is now 36 hours since new restrictions on businesses, as part of stage four lockdown, came into effect, forcing almost all of the remaining city office workers either off work or working from home.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, this week announced that as part of the new six-week restrictions almost all businesses in Melbourne, save for those essential services like food, pharmacies and petrol stations, would need to close down.
Andrews said it was the “only way” to drive down the number of cases of Covid-19 in Victoria, and Melbourne in particular.
Bourke Street Mall devoid of people. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian
Each day, Melbourne residents wait with bated breath for the new case numbers, usually leaked just before the marathon daily press conferences Andrews has personally led for 36 days in a row.
Since the second wave began there have been cases in the 300s and 400s a day, peaking at 725 this week. As of Friday, there have been 13,867 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Victoria, and 181 deaths.
There are 7,637 active cases in the state, despite tough stage three restrictions being in place for four weeks.
Now, under stage four, Andrews hopes that by driving another 250,000 workers back home, in addition to the 750,000 already either working from home or stood down, the outbreak can be brought under control by mid-September.
Face masks have been mandatory for two weeks. The Australian defence force now roams the streets with police, door-knocking, ensuring those who should be isolating after testing positive are doing so.
You see the police walking around and you think ‘will they come up to me?’
Police presence is high in the city.
On Bourke Street outside Telstra’s closed flagship store, a clearly agitated man is being spoken to by five police officers about his mask. He takes the one he has on off, and swaps it for another one. Around the corner, at a tram stop, another man is being fined by police while sitting on a bench.
Police enforcing mask-wearing protocol on Bourke Street. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian
On a tram on Swanston Street heading south, aged care worker Helen is heading home after a morning shift.
“It’s eerie in the mornings. There’s no one around,” she says. “It’s depressing. It’s very depressing. You see the police walking around and you think ‘will they come up to me?’
“You really do think ‘should I be out?’”
As of Friday there are 1,548 active cases in Victoria in connection with aged care. The Victorian coroner this week announced plans to investigate the deaths at one of the most-affected centres.
Helen who is an aged care worker managed to get her work permit in time. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian
Helen says everyone at her work is “mega stressed”.
Since Thursday, workers in Victoria have been required to carry a permit outlining why they are allowed to be working outside their homes, where they are working, and when they are on shift.
Helen says getting her permit ready before her shift was stressful.
“Everyone varies shifts. You could work on a Monday and then not work the rest of the week.”
When stage four lockdown was hinted at before Sunday, supermarket chains Coles and Woolworths reimposed limits on purchases of some goods, as reports surfaced of people again flocking to supermarkets to stock up.
At the Tang Asian Food Emporium on Russell Street, the shelves are full, and a few customers are buying. One of the supermarket’s staff members, Wallace, says there wasn’t as much of a rush on the supermarket as there had been in March.
Wallace from Tang Asian Food Emporium, in the quiet supermarket. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian
“This time it’s like normal,” he says. “Much quieter.”
Back at his cafe, Desai says the quiet city makes it difficult to stay open.
“I keep getting the rent invoices, and I can’t even pay the rent.”
Desai is on the federal government’s $1,500 a fortnight jobkeeper program to subsidise wages in order to keep operating, and is aware of the Victorian government’s $5,000 grants for affected businesses but hasn’t yet applied.
“That’s all I’m getting. And I have to pay tax on it, which is, I think is a really bad idea. Government is treating [jobkeeper] as an income. I have to pay tax on it.”
He will open again on Monday and Tuesday but he may close for the remainder of the lockdown period. Just over one year since his shop opened, Desai says it is like going back to “square zero”.
“I have to start the whole business again. Because we [will] lose some customers, some people will move out and so I’ll have to build the whole business again, I think,’” he says.
“If I want to close it forever, who is gonna buy my business? It’s only one year and I was getting to a point where I want to be. And then this came.”