From St Kilda to Coburg the traffic is heavy in Melbourne for the first time in months. The bars are filling up and friends are having long hugs as the world’s lockdown capital sheds its Covid restrictions and opens up.
“Melbourne is back!” yells one man out of his car window on Lygon Street in the inner-city suburb of Carlton.
While remaining restrictions mean pubs are far from packed, Lois, the manager at Brunswick’s longest-standing pub the Edinburgh Castle, says they have been slammed.
“The phones didn’t stop going off all day, a lot of people asking if they can just come in for a quick one.”
Out the back, Mads White and Eugene Stone-Marques are sharing a mid-strength tap beer.
“It tastes not that good … so we’ll be levelling up on the next one,” White says. “I was trying to ease into it.
“My social anxiety is somewhat under wraps … I had a lot of nervous giddy excitement.”
The pub opening is great they say, but what they are really looking forward to is seeing some live music.
“But it’s a bit unclear when it’s going to happen properly,” White says.
Those who couldn’t get an elusive pub booking have organised dinner parties.
Casey Atkins is off to a barbecue at a mate’s place in Essendon. Like many going out Friday evening, she is worried if the last four months have taken a toll on her social abilities.
“It feels kind of like nerves before a first date,” Atkins says. “I wonder if people will like me? Do I look OK? Will my conversation be enough?”
When all you’ve done is stay inside, what ever do you talk about?
“What’s been going on? Sweet F all. I’ve got nothing to report,” Atkins says. “Now we all have to pretend for the past for three months we’ve done something exciting and we can fill six hours of socialising. I think there’ll be dead air.”
While there are more people out and about than in months, the city is far from back to normal.
In Preston, the Raccoon Club is normally (in non-Covid times) pumping with locals by 6pm. But its gates will remain shut until the state reaches at least 80% fully vaccinated, publican Rob Price says.
“It’s not worth opening,” Price says. “We lose more money by opening with restrictions than staying closed. Taking away businesses’ support now is crazy.”
Lots of local bars have signs up saying they are not opening until restrictions ease further.
“Everything is closed. It was just restaurants,” laments Mads McCormack, who is trying to party with her friend Fallon in Fitzroy.
“There is no one around, it is pissing down rain. It’s not really pumping,” McCormack says.
Other Melburnians make the most of their new freedoms during the day.
John and his four sons start early. There are glasses of champagne next to plates of pasta for breakfast at Marios in Fitzroy.
The family spent their final pre-lockdown dinner at the iconic restaurant on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. On Friday morning they were back to welcome in the “new normal”.
“We were here on lockdown day, when it was announced. This table,” John says. “We’ve made the return journey.”
“I’ve waited a long time for this,” his son Liam says as their plates of pasta arrive.
The day’s plan? Haircuts – for everyone. And then drinks – for almost everyone.
The couple next to them clink their martinis. Mario welcomes everyone. “It’s great to be back,” he says as patrons came through the door, scanning the QR code and flashing their vaccination status.
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Down the road, Neel Morley is cutting hair.
“We’re booked out for the next five weeks,” he says. “I won’t let them book further.”
He has been getting 20 calls a day – and expects to see some pretty funky home cuts.
“I’ve had a few people say ‘don’t judge me on my colour’. We’ve got some crazy fringes,” Morley says.
“I feel very grateful. Everyone wants a good haircut and a good laugh and I can give them both.”
Hairdressers are not the only places where it is hard to get a booking. Hope St, the radio station turned bar at the arts hub Collingwood Yards, is booked out until the end of the year and has a wait list 1,200 people deep.
While indoor retail is not allowed to reopen until 80% of the population aged 16 and over is vaccinated, some businesses are getting creative.
The owner of clothing store Alpha 60, Alex Cleary, and his sister Juliet have set up a pop-up shop on the pavement outside.
He says the clothes have not stopped flying off the racks.
“We’re doing everything outside,” Cleary says. “We’ve got a little game to play – you throw the balls into the bucket and win a prize.”
Music blares, the smoke machine is pumping, and people scream as they win packs of coasters and tote bags.
“We’ll be doing this for the week while retail isn’t allowed to open inside,” Cleary says. “It’s good isn’t it?”
At the mosque tucked around the corner, things are a little quieter. On a pre-Covid Friday, it would be packed for lunchtime prayers.
But congregations of all faiths are finding it hard to open up with capacity limits – how do you manage to have just 40 people when your community has 400?
In the city’s CBD you can still feel the quiet pull of lockdown. One in five of the CBD’s shopfronts are vacant and many of its restaurants are empty.
In Chinatown, Richie Purwowilianti and Nardia Bunjamin are just happy to eat lunch sitting down.
“This is our first lunch since the lockdown,” Purwowilianti says. “I’m glad lockdown is over and we can finally be out.”