Business wants road map to reopening, but Sutton says things moving too fast for that

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Big business and tourism groups want the Victorian government to give more clarity on further easing of coronavirus restrictions after what they saw as another conservative step out of lockdown.

Acting Premier James Merlino announced on Wednesday that from 11.59pm on Thursday, Melburnians can travel to regional Victoria, masks will no longer be mandatory outdoors in the city and capacity limits at events and hospitality venues will rise slightly across the state.

With visitor numbers to the CBD still suffering from restrictions, businesses and tourism groups want more clarity.Credit:Getty Images

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said Victoria would continue to move stage by stage out of the “circuit-breaker” lockdown imposed three weeks ago, because the risk of the virus circulating in the community undetected was still present, particularly as testing numbers continued at fewer than 20,000 a day.

With five new cases all linked with known outbreaks on Wednesday, Professor Sutton flagged a “pretty strong expectation” of further easing in a week, without going into detail on what was likely to change.

“The snap back to COVID-normal, if you like, that we’ve had previously – we’re not at that stage yet,” he said. “We’re moving by safe and steady increments with a view to continue to ease restrictions as we go along, as we run down these last few cases while bearing in mind that there may well be cases out in the community.”

Among the changes for Greater Melbourne announced on Wednesday were the lifting of hospitality capacity limits from 50 to 75 people indoors and office numbers from 25 per cent to 50 per cent, along with the reopening of gyms and seated service at nightclubs.

Tim Piper, Victorian head of the national employer association Australian Industry Group, said the piecemeal move out of lockdown left industries with a “sense of limbo with a lack of confidence on what is happening in the future”.

“Businesses and government are wallowing in a growing sea of debt and what I’m really worried about here is that with these continuing restrictions, the community loses confidence and businesses lose confidence to bounce back properly,” Mr Piper said.

He called for a road map with indications on what restrictions would be eased next, while also encouraging the state government to move quicker than its routine of the past two weeks where it has waited until each Wednesday to announce new rules.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton announcing the next gradual step out of lockdown on Wednesday.Credit:Jason South

“A road map is helpful to give us certainty. But it shouldn’t prevent us from acting more quickly,” he said. “These restrictions are having far more of an impact on a week-by-week basis than previous lockdowns because we don’t have JobKeeper and businesses are continuing to keep employees on, even if they aren’t making a profit.”

Professor Sutton, when asked if a road map similar to that provided at the end of last year’s second-wave lockdown was possible, said the difference was he wanted restrictions to move faster than last year.

“Last year … we were coming out of a really huge second wave and we looked at days and days of zeroes or days and days without mystery cases before we changed. If we were going along such a conservative path, you could lay that out,” the Chief Health Officer said.

“[Right now] we are trying to go back on a day-by-day assessment so that we can ease these settings as soon as possible.”

Paul Guerra, head of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, responded that Victorians had been “conditioned to day-to-day case numbers, but no movement on restrictions for a week”.

“If it’s a day-by-day proposition then we should be able to ease restrictions earlier than a week from now,” he said.

In a sign of some flexibility around tourism in particular, it was announced on Wednesday that Melburnians can visit the state’s ski resorts from this weekend but will have to get a COVID-19 test and show their negative result before being allowed to enter.

Mr Guerra lauded the move and said, in addition, the state government should publicly release the total number of QR code check-ins at Victorian venues every day.

Victorian ski resorts such as Mount Baw Baw can accept visitors from Melbourne this weekend.Credit:Justin McManus

“We can establish a baseline and if numbers start to drop we can do two things: the government can call it out in public and businesses can get the jolt to be hyper-vigilant on ensuring customers check in,” he said.

The producers of the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child stage performance cancelled planned shows from June 19 to June 25 on Wednesday, citing the limit of 75 crowd members in the 1500-capacity Princess Theatre.

“Those who purchased tickets for the affected performances will be contacted by their point of purchase to exchange. We fully understand that the continued cancellations are disappointing, and we appreciate your support and patience,” they said in a release.

Felicia Mariani, chief executive of the Victoria Tourism Industry Council, welcomed the scrapping of the 25-kilometre movement limit in Melbourne ahead of school holidays this month.

But she warned ongoing restrictions in Melbourne were leading other states to continue to enforce travel restrictions and Victoria was losing $1.4 billion per month from the lack of interstate visitors.

“Releasing Melburnians from the confines of a 25-kilometre restricted travel radius will enable travel across the state, which is a wonderful result for regional tourism operators … but this will not provide much joy to our city-based operators, which are seriously struggling at the moment,” Ms Mariani said.

Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said Wednesday’s changes made it too difficult for many small businesses to open their doors.

“If you keep in place restrictions that make it impossible [to open], then what is the point? Our small businesses deserve than that,” he said, giving the example of a limit of 50 visitors to gyms at any one time.

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