Close the beach – a very Sydney solution to the coronavirus problem

The closure of Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach in response to coronavirus concerns was typical Sydney problem solving – fire, aim, ready – and punish all for the transgressions of a few.

It was a very Sydney solution – like bar lockouts and the crushing of live music – where quick, sweeping, muscular bans are the first choice of governments.

Thousands of Sydneysiders escaped the heat and defied coronavirus social distancing on Friday March 20th, The next day, Bondi and other beaches in Sydney’s east closed indefinitely.

Bondi Beach - March 20 2020
Bondi Beach - March 20 2020

I headed to Bondi to exercise that Friday, as I do most days when in Sydney. I swim across the bay. I’d heard Scott Morrison announce a tightening of social distancing earlier in the day and was already following the guidelines.

I’m gonna guess that most people there that day – especially travellers – weren’t hanging on every Scomo announcement and many at Bondi were not aware of the tightening of Australia’s coronavirus restrictions. I saw no signs or announcements of updated advice.

As the pictures showed, Bondi was packed. But not so packed that it was not possible to keep the required social distance. I did and I’m sure thousands of others did too. Social distancing isn’t very difficult 200 metres offshore – which is one of the reasons the ban on swimming for exercise is so infuriating.

It was after I left the beach that I saw the most dangerous behaviour. They weren’t swimmers or surfers. They were the young folk packed onto Biddigal Reserve for the sunset and into the bars on the Bondi Promenade. It looked like any normal summer day.

Biddigal Reserve, Bondi Beach - March 20 2020
Biddigal Reserve, Bondi Beach - March 20 2020
The name may have been closer to the truth than the owners intended. Bondi 20 March 2020
The name may have been closer to the truth than the owners intended. Bondi 20 March 2020

The worst of it was on the bus from Bondi to Bondi Junction. New South Wales transport, run by the New South Wales government, like so many others, hadn’t caught up with the latest Scomo announcements either. We were packed in like sardines.

The next day, the Bondi outrage peaked, Sydney’s eastern suburbs beaches closed. Few mentioned the parks, the buses and the bars.

While state and national leaders were fuming over the Friday Bondi crowds, they had less to say about the biggest national security failure of my lifetime, unfolding at the same time – the Ruby Princess debacle. More than 20 are dead. Hundreds have been infected. And the breakdown of commonsense immigration and bio-security protocol in a pandemic, remains unexplained.

Let's talk about Bondi instead.

What happened at Bondi on 20 March was bad. But the worst stuff, that happened off the beach, was not addressed.

Sydney decision-making in a nutshell.

In the days that followed, Bondi’s backpacker community became a cluster of infection. So the interest in Bondi made sense. But it was misdirected.

A better approach would have seen the beaches closed to all social activity and sunbathing, while staying open to runners, walkers, swimmers and surfers – with strict enforcement of social distancing rules and penalties for violations. Other areas of Australia (and New South Wales) did it this way. On very hot and busy days, further reasonable restrictions might have been necessary.

This would have treated the people of Sydney with the respect they deserve, acknowledged that communication had been confused in the lead-up to the infamous Friday, giving people a fair go, with proper information, to do the right thing.

It would also acknowledge that the application of draconian restrictions needs to reach a high commonsense standard and be explained. If golf courses, parks and hairdressers are open but ocean swimming, surfing and beach exercises are forbidden, the basic pact of trust and respect in fighting the virus is undermined.

That federal and state leaders were more interested in Bondi bashing than the Ruby Princess debacle and Home Affairs airport negligence was another betrayal.

Western Australia’s premier Mark MacGowan made a joke of the fining of a lone jogger in Newcastle eating a kebab saying, “They do things differently in New South Wales.” His beaches remained open, though tightly policed, during the hottest April day on record. People complied with sensible, well-communicated controls. What’s wrong with Sydney?