A day & night in the life of a country town under Covid-19

It’s a Saturday night in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, some 100km south of Sydney. It’s been a mild Autumn Day, perfect for a quick daytrip to the clear air some 700 metres above sea level. It’s the kind of day that normally provides a chance to spend an idle morning, slowly reading the Saturday paper, at one of the dozens of excellent cafés and restaurants that dot the picturesque town of Bowral, population around 13,000.

The silence of Saturday night under Covid-19

Except this isn’t a normal autumn Saturday.

It’s what is likely to be the final weekend of Stage 2 people-distancing, the first requiring closure of all restaurants and cafés except for takeaway.

There have been multiple free parking spots on the town’s main thoroughfare, Bong Bong Street, throughout the day. Normally they fill just after 8.00am remaining full until 8-9.00pm. Tonight the streets are almost deserted.

Infection still too easy when shopping

Bowral’s welcome mat was out, but tourists have stayed away in droves already for 6 months

Early in the day, at 7.45am, at Woolworths Supermarket, or Woolies as everyone around here calls it, there are free parking spots aplenty. Inside there are even paper towels and tissues for purchase, a first in two weeks. No toilet rolls visible, still no hand sanitiser, with eggs and milk down to a few cartons only. The self-checkouts are now half closed, to ensure adequate spacing between customers.

Entrance to the area is via clearly marked red crosses where X marks the spot. Staff are there policing spacing. That’s the good news. There are no gloves for young shelf-stackers handling fresh vegetables. The hand sanitiser wipe dispenser for customers has been removed today because they can’t get supplies. I am assured that all the baskets have been wiped over before being replaced for customers. But I can’t find out what they have been wiped with. Tap & Go payment is the only choice, but no sign that the checkout selection screen is wiped after I depart. No warning signs to avoid handling fresh produce to test for ripeness of avocados, for example. 

The absence of masks for staff or one-time-use gloves or sanitiser in-store is a supply issue. But it adds risk for employees and customers alike. Food shopping is an essential service, so this is a failure point in infection control that needs mending, as a priority. Discouraging the aged, of whom I am one, is another safety improvement the government fixes the following day, though with significant offsetting emotional and mental health consequences.

The afternoon’s been quiet in Bowral streets. Sale signs are everywhere. Rumours in the national media that Wesfarmers is assessing the continued viability of its Target stores have a few extra people going through the doors in the town’s only national chain discount store. But shopping for anything except food seems extraneous activity for most of this older demographic. Staying safe at home is the preference of seniors. Less so it appears younger generations who can be seen in groups of four or more, much less than a meter apart. I even watch in amazement as one student passes his cigarette to another of his mates as they brazenly wander down the pavement filling its full width in their line of four.

Moss Vale’s legendary Bernie’s American Diner – now just Takeaway

A quick trip to neighbouring Moss Vale, some seven kilometres to the South, for some gardening supplies takes me through the main street, Argyle Street. One of its most celebrated eateries is Bernie’s, a wonderfully brash American-style diner. Its many stalls and tables are deserted, but kitchen hands are hard at work preparing food for the expected Takeaway demand of the Evening. “Burgers Will Save You” announces the huge new sign splashed across the front window, with an even more unmissable phone number to call in your order.

Moss Vale’s Wine Bar & restaurant, Wine Mosaic, goes online for takeaway turnover

The wine and food bar nearby, Wine Mosaic, also with an unused cavernous restaurant floor, invites regulars to try their new takeaway online service, offering frequently updated menus. No evidence of many takers, but it’s early. Towards the top of the town stands a man and a table on the footpath, with brightly coloured liquid. He’s outside the closed doors of the Thai Massage Parlour with a large tent sign signalling available hand cleanser. He tells me it’s a ‘finable’ offence for their venue to open the doors, even if they are only selling 70% ethanol-based hand sanitiser, not their therapeutic massage services. It’s six weeks since I last found hand sanitiser, so I purchase two pocket-sized bottles. The owner tells me that meeting the rent will be a huge challenge and is not optimistic for the future. I depart, chastened by the message.

I stop home for a cup of tea on what is now a sunny late afternoon. I plot out an evening delving deeper into the local effects of the coronavirus on people’s livelihoods.

Checking out the once-packed restaurants

After eating a defrosted take-away Indian meal purchased from a long-time favourite, Flavour of India, in Edgecliff in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs the previous weekend, I set off back into town. At 7.45pm on a Saturday night, Bowral’s main street, Bong Bong Street, usually has no spare car parking spots. Early-session family dinners are coming to an end, the main feature is just starting at the historic Empire cinema and the serious diners are settling in for a longer night of food, wine or beer and fellowship. 

Tonight, one side of the street is devoid of a single vehicle. On the other side there are just three taxis waiting, but few other vehicles. I do a circuit around the block, finding none of the normally busy three restaurants on the side street open at all. I turn left again onto Boolwey Street, and pull over.

Jack Disadee, 27 years in business, forced to let most of his staff go, trying to keep going

27 years of service to the Highlands community

The corner is occupied by the brightly lit Thai Restaurant, New Jack Style. Established for over twenty-five years this family business is a full house on Saturday nights, with many regulars across generations. None tonight of course. I ask if I can come in, keeping a safe distance. There’s just Jack Disadee, the owner, at the counter. Beautifully presented in traditional Thai silk attire. We get to chat. Jack tells me that things are dire. Business is down over 80%. He has just three people on staff tonight, including himself. More than half of his long-serving staff have had to be laid off. Trauma is written all over his face. Everything he has worked for is at risk. During the recent bushfires, Jack was tireless, frequently driving out 20kms or more to the Firies in their local stations as they came off the fire fronts. Jack can’t see the way through any more. 

Jack is keen to promote his new takeaway service and his truly authentic curries. He moves into sales mode. He reminds me that Jack Style Thai is the only restaurant in the district that makes all their curry pastes from scratch.

Despite his best efforts, smiling tonight was not something possible for Jack Disadee

I am deeply moved at this man’s passion, but fearful for his future. I promise to return as a client in coming days. A wonderful Wai farewell, with hands arched together pointing upwards in peace. Even at this moment of despair grace and nobility stands before me. The wage subsidies announced two days later by government might just be his salvation.

Along three doors is one of the town’s top pizzerias, Eccetera. The principle chef is kneading the dough for tomorrow’s pizza, all made on-site. There are two in the kitchen while Francesca serves customers who have come in for takeaway. The adjacent function suite lies empty as I glance through the street window; the few dine-in seats are stacked. Sicilian-born owner Jonaton Fontechia tells me that they too are facing a massive decline in revenue, still trying to offer a full service. Dark humour between staff brightens the conversation.

At Sicilian Pizzeria Eccetera, preparing the dough for hopefully a better day on Sunday

Between the lines it’s clearly very tough. Jonaton shows me a display of local produce and dry goods, as well as the wines that they are now allowed to sell with takeaway, not just on premise, under new emergency NSW State government regulations. Potentially it’s one area of relief, allowing a complete meal for clients. He assures me they are doing their bit supporting local producers, selling the wine and produce with little or no mark-up.

Before driving off I am offered the pizza of my choice and their thanks for trying to get their story out. “It’s the Italian Way of hospitality,” Jonaton assures me, with a reassuring smile. I politely decline but promise to return as a paying customer before too long. A solid business for five years; suddenly the future unknown, with no light at the end of the tunnel, or even knowledge of which tunnel they are in.

Every Country Town has its faithful Chinese Restaurant

In the car again, moments later I come to the main Chinese restaurant – The Shanghai. Owned by the same family for thirty years I am greeted by Dior whose face lights up on my arrival. Sadly I am not a customer. The dining room is elegantly laid out with pristine linen. One side of the room remains shaded and unlit. An older man sits in a rear corner, studying his computer. Carmen Chan the owner is not in tonight. It is, however, the same story. They are down a huge amount on normal Saturday trade, worse than a regular weeknight. Dior explains what’s possible and thrusts a menu into my hand in the hope I return. I bid farewell, with the picture of that elegant but deserted traditional Chinese restaurant, a pillar in Bowral eating for three decades, etched in my mind, wondering if there’s a future.

One last call for the night

It’s time to make one last visit. I had spotted “The Bowral” restaurant at the start of the south end of the street. But about half way to my planned destination I hear music through my open car window, playing loudly somewhere close by. I get distracted. An illegal band performance? Is the pub actually open? I jump out and let my ears draw me to the source of the music. As I re-cross Boolwey Street I spot the lighted window of South Hill Kitchen, a landmark all day restaurant/ street café, right in the heart of town. A solitary lady is seated within, almost framed by the shop window, studying two separate laptop computer screens. After waving madly and showing my camera through the locked front door, she comes to the door, opens it and I explain my purpose. 

It’s nearly fourteen hours since owner Tory Bevan clocked on

The owner, Tory Bevan – the lady standing on the other side of the room before me, purchased this business a year ago. Café breakfasts and coffee to-die-for at the start of the day, fine local produce, -much of it from her own 50 acre property, South Hill, close by, with superb cooking for lunch thanks to a top chef, stretching through the afternoon and wonderful teas. It’s 9.20pm. Tory has been at work for 14 hours, with several hours still ahead. She seems grateful for a bit of company. She’s coding her website with their new takeaway offering. Many of the eighteen staff have been let go, many of them valued permanents. After completely re-fitting out the kitchen, she had just got the business to operate properly when the bushfires started in November. Now she’s dealing with the Coronavirus. 

On Easter weekend this year it’ll be her first anniversary, normally the best five days of the year. Not this year. In the refrigerated cabinet all sorts of great individual freshly baked goods and fine local produce are evident. The Takeaway menu alone inadequately conveys just how inviting the food really is. Tory challenges me that when I return any morning the following week that I will have my best cup of coffee ever, even takeaway. If not, there will be an investigation! Tory has a marketing background, has been involved with major enterprises, including Stadium Australia. This lady knows how to market, how to code a good website, how to produce great produce and get a team to deliver a great experience. Without a restaurant full of seated clients inside and out it’s hard to see how she can make ends meet. I tell her that as a photographer and writer it’s been weeks since I had any business. Without future bookings I feel her pain. To see that passion, skill and love of what she does with her team, dissolve in less than a week with no known end in sight, is sad to the point of tears. She courteously comes to see me out and I turn to see her standing wistfully, thinking of a world with much brighter futures just weeks before.

Tory Bevan says farewell, but vows to fight on

These stories will be repeated in every Australian country town, or suburban street in coming weeks and months. If we could all just take some of that sleepy dust, to be woken by the charming prince or princess when it’s all over, you could express some hope. As of today’s writing, when a gathering of two is now the limit, and the over-70’s strongly discouraged from any departure from home for any purpose, all these businesses will struggle on for a few more days, possibly weeks. 

The faint ray of hope two days after my visit, introducing wage support, may just be what’s needed, unless it’s just too little too late, as respected journalist Peter Hartcher suggested on national television. In each case these are all vibrant business owners, all with loyal customers. Unless everyone starts takeaway pickups for many of their weekly meals, these bedrock members of the community won’t be there when the virus threat is passed. For the New South Wales Southern Highlands, which depends almost entirely on strong weekend tourist traffic, busloads of international day trippers and some loyal locals through the week, the future under COVID-19 restrictions is dire. 

The Highlands community made it out the other side in January, after the fires. This unprecedented health event is a whole extra dimension of struggle to survive. 

Their spirits are willing. They just need half a chance.

Copyright John Swainston, 2020. All rights in pictures and text reserved.

I wish to acknowledge my thanks to all those interviewed on what is a harrowing time for each of them and their loyal staff.