Victoria is in a state of disaster. What does that mean and what are the rules now?

A state of disaster has been declared for the second time in Victoria’s history as the Andrews government calls on the same powers invoked during the summer bushfire crisis to enforce tougher coronavirus restrictions across Melbourne, including the city's first nightly curfew.

The lockdown will last another six weeks, long enough to hopefully drive down the local spread of a virus emerging in many hundreds of new cases each day. Without the tougher “stage four” rules, Victoria’s health officials estimate existing shutdowns would have to run until the end of the year – an unacceptable scenario, according to Premier Daniel Andrews.

Instead, the new rules are designed as a “shock and awe” campaign to drive down local spread as fast as possible. Non-essential workplaces, retail and most schools will close and Melburnians will be restricted to within a five-kilometre radius of their home, with few exceptions. "This is heartbreaking … but there's no alternative," Andrews says.

So what does the new lockdown mean for you? What powers does the new state of disaster give police and government? And what businesses will now have to close?

Melbourne will turn into a ghost town after dark under the city's new curfew.Credit:The Age

What are the main changes to the rules?

Regional Victoria (including the Mitchell shire) is now moving to the stage three stay-at-home orders Melburnians have been living under since early July – meaning people can venture out only for the four permitted reasons: to work or study if they can't from home; to exercise; to shop for essentials and to provide or receive care, or for compassionate reasons such as attending a funeral or fleeing violence.

But in metropolitan Melbourne, the rules have been tightened to stage four and that means some big changes including:

  • Workplaces and shops that are not deemed essential will close or reduce their hours from Wednesday midnight but services such as supermarkets, petrol stations and doctors will remain open.
  • There is a nightly curfew in force: between the hours of 8pm and 5am you cannot leave home except for work or to get or provide urgent care.
  • You must stay within five kilometres of your home to shop or exercise.
  • If you leave the house to exercise, it should be for only one hour each day. As for the hour itself, the Premier says police "can't be putting a stopwatch on people" but they will be enforcing the five-kilometre rule. If you live in an apartment, for example, you can take your dog out to relieve itself more than once a day, but stay close to your home.
  • While up to two people can still exercise together, people should shop on their own – groups in public, even from the same household, are no longer allowed.
  • Schools will shift to remote learning except for vulnerable students and children of essential or "permitted" workers.
  • Childcare centres will close to all but vulnerable children and those of essential workers.
  • Funerals can continue with a maximum of 10 people but weddings are off except for rare, compassionate reasons.

Masks (or face coverings) remain mandatory across all of Victoria when you are in public. (More detail on what's in store for Melbourne, including a handy interactive to help you plot out your five-kilometre bubble, below).

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, left, with Premier Daniel Andrews.Credit:Justin McManus

Why has a state of disaster been declared?

Victoria has been in a state of emergency since the first major wave of coronavirus infections hit in March. This already gives the Chief Health Officer (our now famous Professor Brett Sutton) wide-ranging powers to protect public health such as by banning mass gatherings and putting people into quarantine under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act – powers that will continue until the current state of emergency is lifted.

But a state of disaster goes beyond health; it is usually intended for crises wrought by nature or by malicious attackers. It allows the state’s Emergency Minister (in this case, Lisa Neville) to direct government agencies and allocate resources as well as controlling movement within the disaster area when a threat is deemed to pose "a significant and widespread danger to life or property". Police can be deemed “authorised officers”, Neville has said, able to enter private property when they believe rules are being breached.

Most significantly of all, orders made under the state of disaster trump existing legislation – through a handy clause named after Henry VIII (the infamous British king who gave himself powers to avoid legislating through Parliament).

The decision to call on the powers was “not made lightly”, Neville said on August 2, but to help enforce the new curfew as well as “public order issues” such as panic buying in supermarkets. “For those who want to test the police powers this puts them beyond doubt,” she said.

Six months ago, as monster bushfires were raging east of Melbourne, the Premier declared Victoria’s first state of disaster since the power was created by the Emergency Management Act in 1986. But even then, only specific bushfire zones fell under its scope. This time, all of Victoria is in the disaster area.

"This is a public health bushfire,” Andrews said on August 2 of the COVID-19 crisis. “But you can't smell the smoke and you can't see the flames … It is a wicked enemy. And it spreads so fast without people even knowing.”

While the virus in Victoria is not yet as out of control as it is in some larger nations such as the United States, Andrews warns that the state’s hospital system will still be overwhelmed if its cases continue to clip along at a rate of 500 to 600 more each day. “That will see this drag on for months and months … and me having to stand here every day and report more people dying.”

Most concerningly, there are more than 760 "mystery cases" with no known infection source, indicating the virus is running unchecked through the community. "Those mysteries are in many respects our biggest challenge and the reason why we need to move to a different set of rules," he said.

Sutton has said that the stage three restrictions imposed in early July on metropolitan Melbourne had helped stave off full-scale disaster – possibly averting 20,000 cases since the shutdown began. “But it wasn’t enough.” Transmission plateaued, it didn't stop.

If everyone follows the rules, he said the new six-week lockdown period should be long enough to crush local spread of the virus back down to manageable levels – though there were no guarantees.

So what do the new Melbourne rules mean on the ground?

Let's recap on those four essential reasons to leave home in metro Melbourne. In all cases, officials stress that people should first consider if they really need to leave home, not if they can. And then, do they really need to travel more than five kilometres?

The five-kilometre rule does not apply when travelling for compassionate or emergency reasons or seeking medical care, a Victorian government spokeswoman confirmed.

When can I visit family and friends?

Social visits are banned throughout Victoria. The only exceptions are for romantic partners and those providing care, say, to help out a sick or elderly relative; for shared custody of children; or to look after pets, animals housed elsewhere or injured wildlife. (But routine visits to the vet should stay outside of curfew hours.)

What if I'm worried about someone living alone?

While concerns are mounting about mental health under isolation, people are instead urged to check in on one another virtually or over the phone where possible. The Victorian government has flagged such support may be necessary in person but only in certain circumstances, such as caring for someone with a mental health condition.

"A person can leave home to provide care and support for [someone] who has particular needs because of age, infirmity, disability, illness or a chronic health condition, or because of matters relating to the person’s health (including mental health or pregnancy)," the government spokeswoman said.

"This means that you can travel at any time of day if it is necessary to provide care to a friend, relative or other person with a mental health condition."

What if I need care?

You can leave home (and travel beyond five kilometres) in an emergency, to see the doctor, to apply for an intervention order or attend court or a police station. Victoria's Minister for Women, Gabrielle Williams, has also stressed people fleeing family violence can leave their homes at any hour, and travel as far as they need to.

Can I move house or have tradies over?

You can move house if you have to but you can't have cleaners or lawnmowers or tradies over to your home except for emergency reasons – such as a burst waterpipe. This is not a time for home renovations, the Premier has said.

Is babysitting OK?

Babysitting may fall into essential work or caregiving categories if no other options are available but should be avoided under the rule of no visitors.

So what does this mean for my workout?

Excercise outside is OK … so long as you keep it to one hour with just one other person and stay in your local neighbourhood (within your five-kilometre bubble). "There will be commonsense exemptions for children who are being cared for and can't be left at home and things of that nature," Andrews has said.

But no golf again?

Outdoor recreation such as fishing and golf is banned within metropolitan Melbourne.

What about visiting a cemetery?

Yes, just don't break curfew. "Visiting a cemetery or a memorial such as a grave, crypt or cremation niche to pay respects to a deceased person is a permitted reason to leave home between 5am and 8pm," the government spokeswoman confirmed.

What about shopping? Do we still have takeaway coffee?

Shopping for essentials such as groceries must be done solo and, again, no more than five kilometres from home – or at your closest supermarket. There is an exemption for caregiving such as assisting the elderly. Cafes and restaurants can still serve takeaway and local stores such as butchers and fruit and vegetable markets will stay open so, in the words of the Premier, "people do not need to be going and buying six weeks' worth of groceries".

How does the curfew work?

The curfew sets out a much narrower scope of reasons to leave your home between 8pm-5am, which essentially boil down to if you’re an essential worker or it’s an emergency. Shopping and exercise must be done outside these hours and caregiving too unless it’s urgent.

Curfews are not new to Australia. Many Indigenous communities, for example, have lived under a spate of them down the years – but no large-scale curfew has ever been imposed on an Australian city, not even during a world war, until now.

Melbourne's 8pm curfew will allow police to have greater oversight over the reasons people are out late at night, Sutton says.

What businesses are closing?

With the definition of essential work narrowing in Melbourne, the government estimates about 250,000 workers are affected by the coming workplace closures. If a non-essential business cannot run with staff at home, it will have to stop working, Andrews has said. Those staying open in whatever capacity will have until 11.59pm on Friday, August 7 to put into place a COVID Safe plan.

A permit system for essential workers is also on the horizon in the coming days, and more is expected on hardship payments. Businesses forced to close in regional Victoria can apply for a $5000 grant while those in Melbourne and Mitchell Shire can apply for up to $10,000. People not previously eligible for the Commonwealth's JobKeeper payments can now apply for a $1500 "pandemic leave" boost from the federal government modelled on Victoria's existing $1500 payment for those having to self-isolate.

Staying open

Essential services such as supermarkets, groceries, bottleshops, pharmacies, banks, newsagencies, post offices as well as health services will remain open. Taxis and Ubers can continue but with mandatory masks and clients riding in the backseat. Future passenger limits may also be on the horizon.

Closing shop

Retail, personal services such as hairdressers, most offices and some manufacturing (such as furniture and textiles) will have to close from midnight on August 5. Stores that can roll out a "click and collect" or drive-through model, such as Bunnings, will be able to stay open with doors closed to customers and some workers on-site to fill orders. Delivery can continue.

Staying partially open

Some offices and certain industries such as meatworks and construction will stay open but at reduced capacity and under strict new safety protocols. Abattoirs across Victoria and meatpacking centres, for example, will reduce production by one-third and deck out workers in full personal protective gear – face masks, shields, and gowns. Staff will be temperature checked and tested regularly. Construction projects run by the government have already halved in recent months, and large commercial projects putting up buildings above three storeys can now have only 25 per cent of their staff on site (maximum of five workers for small projects).

Freight will continue with restrictions along with services connected to animals such as the RSPCA.

Public transport will run on a pared-back timetable and most night services will be scrapped, including the entire Night Network.

Given the many and varied employment situations, you might want to consult the Victorian Government's detailed list of stage 4 business restrictions:

How will the restrictions be enforced?

The Premier has requested extra Australian Defence Force and healthcare personnel from interstate to help manage the state’s surging caseload and ramp up doorknocking campaigns.

But Lisa Neville, who is also Minister for Police, says her new powers under the state of disaster apply only to state agencies such as Victoria Police. With less night-time, public transport, protective services officers (PSOs) usually deployed at stations after dark will be free to help police enforce the rules.

"Police will be out there in force," the Premier has warned, citing a $1652 fine for anyone found breaching the rules. "There will be fairness but the time for discretion, the time for accepting some of this behaviour is over."

After all, he says, it's hard to imagine how strict a "stage five" lockdown would have to be.

A full list of closures and restrictions can be found on the Victorian government’s website.

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