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It may not be the city that never sleeps but Melbourne has long prided itself on being a place that stays open well after dark.
From bastion of the “6 o’clock swill”, when workers would binge and purge in a mad hour of drinking before pubs closed, Melbourne transformed itself into a night-time city that buzzed at all hours.
Then COVID-19 came along. For long stretches of the past two years, many of us haven’t dared to step outside our houses at night. Millions have been locked inside by a restrictive curfew not even used during wartime.
Melbourne under curfew on October 15.Credit:Eddie Jim
Before the pandemic, curfews were considered the stuff of authoritarian regimes with machine-gun toting troops grunting “papers, please”. It was hard to imagine anything like that would ever come to Melbourne.
And then it did, first during the 112-day lockdown in 2020 and then again from August 16 this year. All up, that’s around 170 nights spent inside between 8pm (later shifted to 9pm) and 5am.
Each sunset has brought a new battle against the clock to get home before curfew, the cars emptying from the streets like bath water down a plug hole.
At some point next week, the shroud of this oppressive time limit will finally be lifted.
The Forum Theatre this week during curfew.Credit:Eddie Jim
The state government has promised that once 70 per cent of the eligible population is double vaccinated, the curfew will go. The current estimate is either Thursday or Friday.
Of all the restrictions that Melbourne has lived under for the past two years, the curfew has been one of the most controversial, even being the subject of an unsuccessful court challenge.
Regularly asked to provide the reasons for the curfew, Premier Daniel Andrews acknowledged last year it was implemented to stop people moving around.
Essentially, the curfew was a police tool, rather than a health measure. It was the catch-all rule, a blanket edict to prevent people from doing things that we already weren’t allowed to do, like gathering in houses.
Flinders Street Station is lit up during curfew this week.Credit:Eddie Jim
Whenever the curfew is questioned, some are quick to point out that there wasn’t much to do outside after dark anyway. But that’s not exactly true.
Some people like to go for a walk or exercise at night, particularly if they have to put young children to bed. Shift workers who sleep during the day may be unable to go to the supermarket before or after work.
But more than that, the curfew simply added another layer of stress and anxiety in a city living under lockdown, with seemingly diminishing returns.
Empty laneways in Melbourne during curfew.Credit:Eddie Jim
The curfew’s effectiveness is hard to quantify but it appears to have helped during the 2020 lockdown, when police enforcement was far more visible and the threat of being caught felt real.
Each day, police revealed how many infringement notices had been handed out to rule breakers (although many fines were left unpaid).
In that case, the heavy use of the law was vindicated when Victoria crushed the second wave and came out of lockdown.
This time around, police have focused their energy on stopping protests against vaccination and lockdowns, rather than dragnet-style tactics like checkpoints.
A few lone people in the CBD this week after curfew.Credit:Eddie Jim
It has led to more people breaking the rules with authorities acknowledging that lockdown fatigue has contributed to higher case numbers. Grand final parties, which would have taken place after curfew, have been identified as a reason for a recent spike.
If you ask people in Melbourne what they’re looking forward to right now, they’ll probably answer with a haircut, or a trip to the pub, or kids returning to school.
When the curfew is lifted, it won’t have the same symbolic effect as hair piling up on the barbershop floor or beers being poured from the tap.
But stepping outside our homes after dark will be an important psychological marker in making us feel like our city is open again.
May the curfew never return.
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