How our leisure activities came to a sudden halt

The director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Tony Ellwood, remembers being briefed about how bad the pandemic could get on Sunday, March 15. “I was told that this was going to be incredibly serious and that we needed to move quickly,” he says. “My first thought was that I can see people walking through the gallery. I need to shut it down fast.”

After calls to the state minister and other arts administrators, Ellwood closed the doors of one of the country’s leading cultural institutions. “I don’t want to know that on Monday morning, someone who walked into the NGV contracted an illness because we were open,” he says.

Around the country, the shock of realising how bad COVID-19 was becoming struck at different times.

Heading the Australian Tourism Industry Council, Simon Westaway sensed trouble arriving home from a European family holiday in mid-January. “I read a wire thing about a virus in China,” he says. “When I knew we were in for a really rough ride was the day the federal government confirmed that no Chinese nationals could come into the country.”

That was just after Australia Day – when the number one source of international visitors in a market worth almost $50 billion last year was suddenly suspended – and it was just the beginning. Within weeks, international and state borders were closed and the country went into lockdown.

"My first thought was that I can see people walking through the gallery": director Tony Ellwood outside the National Gallery of Victoria.

“My first thought was that I can see people walking through the gallery”: director Tony Ellwood outside the National Gallery of Victoria. Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

For federal Communications, Cyber Safety and Arts Minister Paul Fletcher, the indelible image of long queues outside Centrelink offices showed the shocking seriousness of the pandemic in March. He cancelled appearing at the dedication of a new organ in a church his electorate.

“There was going to be a hundred-plus people there,” he says. “I remember making the decision not to go because I knew I’d travelled to a number of places in the last week and because I’d been seeing some of the public health advice come through … then very quickly things were shutting down everywhere.”

Airlines grounded planes. Cruises were cancelled. Schools, cinemas, theatres, clubs, gyms and swimming pools were among the closures. Hospitals prepared for COVID infections. WFH – working from home – became widespread. Restaurants and cafes could only serve takeaways. Every day seemed to bring visceral electrical shocks: news about how easily the virus was transmitted, predictions about shortages of intensive care unit beds, images of dying patients and stacked coffins overseas …

So many routine aspects of our daily life – going out, seeking entertainment, shopping, working, dining, socialising, studying, catching up with family, physical contact – changed dramatically.

Restaurateur and chef Luke Mangan, whose business serves food on cruise ships, airlines, hotels and trains, remembers the dread at an event at his restaurant in Sydney’s Waterloo in late March. “We knew something was coming up,” he says. “I remember having a drink with the staff after that event and just saying who knows where we are and what’s going to happen from here.”

Within days, the shutdowns happened and Mangan found himself driving into the office, having a coffee and looking out the window at a changed world. “Most days no-one was in the street,” he says.

Arts and entertainment

The arts and entertainment sector collapsed almost overnight. Virginia Lovett, the joint chief executive of the Melbourne Theatre Company, says crisis preparations have always been “terrorist training or lone shooter”, adding: “We’d never put pandemic on the list.”

Artists, industry workers, companies, shows, events and festivals were affected: Hugo Weaving says just about every actor he knew was suddenly unemployed. Comedian Greg Fleet thought “some venues will never reopen and some performers will probably never return to performing”.

With nowhere much to go, we binged on streaming services – led by The Last Dance, Tiger King, Hamilton and Watchmen – watched Facebook Live press conferences by politicians and health authorities and doomscrolled through COVID news.

We devoured digital content from arts companies – online concerts and play readings, new videos from the NGV and other galleries. We were moved by images of people singing from balconies, reaching for loved ones behind glass and clapping health workers.

Zoom became a new way of relating to the world.

Fletcher used it during a series of video and phone conferences around the sector – with dance companies, theatre companies, symphony orchestras, venues – to work out how to respond.

His assessment was that two-thirds of the 40,000 people in what the Australian Bureau of Statistics calls the creative and performing arts received JobKeeper, worth a total of $558 million. There was also $27 million for regional arts, industry charity Support Act and Indigenous Arts Centres. Later came a $250 million JobMaker initiative with $75 million for the Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund to reactivate the arts and entertainment sector.

For NSW arts minister Don Harwin, the pandemic was “an existential threat to a number of independent arts organisation who frankly were in danger of going under”. A $50 million Rescue and Restart fund was announced to stop that happening then $175 million to attract film and television production to the state.

“We have not lost a single arts company in NSW as a result of COVID,” Harwin says. And he has been delighted by how strongly the arts have been returning since restrictions began easing.

“To look at the joy on the faces of artists when they start performing again … is fantastic,” he says. “And to see the huge smiles on the faces of members of the audience, it’s really very special.”

Victorian Minister for Creative Industries Danny Pearson says the sector was the first to close and is one of the last to reopen. While those working in animation, games and film and television production might have come through relatively unscathed, others were hit hard – with the second lockdown an especially savage blow.

Popular when everyone had to stay home for entertainment: Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen's Gambit.

Popular when everyone had to stay home for entertainment: Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen’s Gambit.Credit:Netflix

“It’s been musicians, it’s been live music venues, it’s been the casual who works a few hours a week at the NGV and it’s been Tina Arena,” he says. “If you look at the Arts Centre Melbourne, they had to cancel 500 performances and refund more than 50,000 tickets. But as a consequence of the restrictions and the strategy that the government has deployed, it’s working and now it’s all coming back to life which is a joyous thing.”

After 119 film and television projects had been suspended, the screen production industry has bounced back quickly with the country’s relative COVID safety attracting such big-name international ventures as the Nicole Kidman series Nine Perfect Strangers in northern NSW, the Chris Hemsworth sci-fi thriller Spiderhead in Queensland and the Liam Neeson thriller Blacklight in Melbourne.

Even when cinemas began reopening, Hoyts chief executive Damian Keogh says the industry has been “bleeding money” without Hollywood blockbusters.

Have governments done enough to support the arts? Kate Fielding, program director for the think tank A New Approach, says live performance, festivals and events have been hardest hit. “While there has been some really fantastic things that different state, territory, federal governments have been doing … it’s clear that this is going to be an area which understandably takes a fairly extended period to recover,” she says.

Liam Neeson on the set of Blacklight, the $42 million action thriller being filmed in Melbourne.

Liam Neeson on the set of Blacklight, the $42 million action thriller being filmed in Melbourne.Credit:Eddie Jim

Dining and shopping

“When this all started I was like, ‘Today I will make myself a honey dijon pork chop over risotto’,” the joke went. “Now I just wake up and go, ‘Egg’.”

The nation’s eating and dining habits changed during the crisis, with home baking and cooking new dishes suddenly popular and a spike in ordering take-away. Traffic was light but scores of delivery bikes were scooting around the suburbs in the early evening, sometimes with tragic consequences for riders.

With restaurants only viable serving takeaways because of JobKeeper, national food and drink writer Callan Boys says suburban cafes began to thrive from WFH. Some hotels turned bars into supermarkets; suppliers of artisan produce and seafood sold to the public for the first time; and, once restrictions started to ease, householders who spent money fixing up their kitchens and entertainment areas during lockdown were entertaining at home more often, possibly deterred by two-hour limits and social distancing when restaurants reopened.

Luke Mangan says revenue for his company was down 95 per cent at the low point of the pandemic. “Staff were going through all that as well, thinking are they going to get their jobs back, are they going to get more hours, how are they going to pay the rent,” he says.

As in many industries, it is expected the scaling back of JobKeeper will see businesses close.

Restaurants in Sydney’s city and tourist areas were hit hard, led by Darling Harbour, the Rocks and Barangaroo. “You think about Circular Quay,” Boys says. “You have a cruise ship come in. It’ll be docked there for a day and all of those tourists go straight to the Rocks – they go to pubs, they’re buying pies, they go to cafes. That’s all gone.”

"Most days no one was in the street": chef and restauranteur Luke Mangan.

“Most days no one was in the street”: chef and restauranteur Luke Mangan.

In Melbourne, the second wave was dispiriting for the hospitality sector.

“They were ready to go,” Boys says. “Menus were planned, suppliers were lined up, it was all happening, then ‘bang’. Everyone … just felt horrible.”

One bright spot coming out of the pandemic has been the opening up of outdoor dining.

Mangan thinks home cooking returned to comfort food and restaurants are heading the same way. “Fancy fine dining is always going to be there but I really think people want that comfort, simple, full-flavoured food,” he says.

Boys thinks the days of “seeing 10 entrees and 10 mains to choose from at a good restaurant” are long gone. He expected high-end restaurants would seek a guaranteed spend from diners with pricier tasting menus and chefs would focus on good quality food without “silly garnishes or edible flowers”.

For national fashion editor Melissa Singer, the pandemic dramatically changed shopping in two ways: how we shopped and what we bought.

While panic buying and physical tangles in supermarkets created headlines, many retailers had to shift their business to virtually 100 per cent online almost overnight.

There were big jumps in sales for home appliances such as bread makers, pizza ovens and coffee machines – “anything that fed into that ‘living at home 24/7’ lifestyle” – as well as furniture and home office equipment. “Tablescaping” (landscaping a dining table to feel better at home) and “Zoom dressing” (tops or jewellery to impress on screen) were at least short-lived trends.

Not surprisingly, Singer says clothing brands that sold activewear and leisurewear generally have done much better than those selling outfits for work, events or nights out.


Just 11 months ago, the Australian travel industry was in an exceptional position. Last year there were record numbers of both international visitors – led by China’s 1.45 million – and domestic travellers.

Within weeks of Australia’s patient zero arriving from Wuhan on January 19, travel stalled. Qantas alone announced 8500 redundancies – almost one-third of its workforce – and expects to lose $11 billion in revenue this financial year.

Even with the airline’s chief executive Alan Joyce flagging earlier this month that domestic air travel was recovering faster than expected with the reopening of state borders – its scheduled capacity was back to almost 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels – international travel was expected to be off the agenda until past June.

Happy with the middle seat in an early flight back in June: Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, centre, with chief customer officer Steph Tully and Qantas International chief executive Tino La Spina.

Happy with the middle seat in an early flight back in June: Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, centre, with chief customer officer Steph Tully and Qantas International chief executive Tino La Spina.

“Australia’s success at virtually eliminating COVID means we’ll need a vaccine for international travel to restart properly,” he says. “We have a duty of care to our people and to our passengers, and once a safe and effective vaccine becomes readily available, it will be a requirement.”

Simon Westaway, from the Australian Tourism Industry Council, says international and domestic visitors were worth more than $150 billion to the economy last year, with Australians travelling overseas spending more than $60 billion. “Collectively it was well over a $200 billion leisure industry that was, in effect, grounded,” he says.

While he expected two-way travel between New Zealand without quarantining by Easter followed by the creation of travel bubbles with Asia – Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and possibly China and South Korea – Westaway did not expect leisure travel to other parts of the world until “at best late 2021, probably 2022”.

“You do wonder who will want to really travel unless there’s an absolute necessity to do so, particularly going to Europe or the States,” he says.

The cruise industry has a similar long haul after the Ruby Princess infection debacle.

Police officers prepared to board the Ruby Princess to seize evidence for an investigation while it was docked in Wollongong.

Police officers prepared to board the Ruby Princess to seize evidence for an investigation while it was docked in Wollongong. Credit:NSW Police

National travel editor Anthony Dennis believes the resumption of cruises will be important not just for keen travellers but for the 40-odd ports in regional Australia that benefit from stopovers. The early focus is expected to be Australia-only cruises then bubbles around COVID-safe destinations.

“It’s going to take a lot of courage by governments and regulators, particularly state governments, to give cruising a green light,” Dennis says. The issue is that crews traditionally come from developing nations badly affected by COVID-19 including the Philippines, which means bringing them into the country and quarantining them.

Interstate travel has been hit hard by both border closures and the uncertainty around their reopening but a bright light for the industry has been travel to regional areas.

Westaway says that NSW areas to become popular tourist attractions since the end of lockdown have included Mudgee, the South Coast and the Hunter Valley, with Victorians expected to head more often to the Mornington Peninsula, Surf Coast, Gippsland and northern Victoria over summer.


Dennis, who says Orange, Byron Bay and Broken Hill have also been popular, thinks the national enthusiasm for heading overseas will be tempered even as restrictions ease, particularly among retirees with hefty superannuation balances who are used to regular overseas trips.

“There’s no doubt a lot of Australians, particularly in that retiree category, have been awakened to the ease and enjoyment of domestic travel,” he says. “Even though it gets criticised for being expensive and the standard of service is questioned at times, a lot of people have been pleasantly surprised.”

You can read other stories in our series here.

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