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Coronavirus pub closures devastate drought and bushfire-affected communities

By Jessie Davies and Jen Browning, Tuesday March 24, 2020 - 00:58 EDT
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Ash and Lib Walker say their pub, The Armatree Hotel, is the heart of their community. - ABC

Communities devastated by bushfire and battle-hardened by drought have now bid farewell to their one old faithful — their local pub.

At midday all pubs, clubs, and licenced venues in Australia closed in line with the Federal Government's directives to crack down on gatherings to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Ash Walker, who owns the Armatree Hotel in western New South Wales, said he was gutted to call last drinks.

"It's all about having a yarn, keeping a straight face, and helping each other through things," Mr Walker said.

"It's more than having a beer."

'80 per cent will close'

The Government's shutdown of the hotel industry extends to sporting and religious venues, while cafes and restaurants will be restricted to providing takeaway services only.

Australian Hotels Association president John Green estimated takeaway services made up just 10 per cent of the pubs' business.

He expected 80 per cent of the nation's pubs would close their doors until the ban was lifted, potentially in six months' time.

"Pubs aren't bottle shops. They are places that people go to socialise. It's beyond devastating," Mr Green said.

'A very long journey'

Mr Walker and his wife, Lib, have owned their remote pub at Armatree for the past 13 years.

Crippling drought over the past three years meant their pub became the lifeblood of the town.

"I have plenty of people say to me it's a lot cheaper to come here and have a few beers than it is to see a psychiatrist," he said.

"Today is going to be day one of a very long journey for us all."

The financial impact of the Government's ruling would be a "massive" blow to the Walkers' business.

"We have some permanent staff here and we employ 12 casuals. All of those people have now been stood down," Mr Walker said.

He said the pub would stay afloat, but others would not be so lucky.

"I'm sure there are a lot of country pubs teetering on the edge and this might be the unfortunate nail in the coffin for those," Mr Walker said.

A whopping blow for Cobargo

For Cobargo publican Dave Allen, 2020 has been unpredictable.

In January bushfire ravaged his small town, destroying dozens of buildings and killing two people.

Since then, Mr Allen's pub, the Cobargo Hotel, has provided meals and comfort to the masses.

"With people losing their homes and having no power, and having large groups like BlazeAid in town, our kitchen has virtually tripled since the fires," Mr Allen said.

His pub has been a place for locals to laugh, dance, cry, and recover.

Closing his doors hurt.

"It's a bit morose but the bushfires have been a warm-up for the coronavirus crisis. Once again we're faced with uncertainty," Mr Allen said.

"Our lives are going to be upended and life as we know it isn't going to be the same."

Adapting to the challenge

Mr Allen said his business was already brainstorming ways to service his community through the pandemic.

"We're the only shop in town where people can get takeaway food, so we need to be robust," he said.

"We're already looking at doing home deliveries and pre-boxing different ingredients so people can prepare meals at home.

"That will make it easier for the elderly in our community who can't make it to the grocery store."

While some publicans had lamented the blanket nature of the Government's crackdown, Mr Allen felt it was sensible.

"Most of the fires happened from a single lightning strike. There was nothing we could do," he said.

"With this crisis, we've had the benefit of seeing what's happened elsewhere and that means we can get in early and mitigate the damage."

Virtual pubs to fill the void

Professor Patrick McGorry, who leads the youth mental health organisation Orygen, said while many worried about their elders experiencing loneliness, it was young people we had to worry about.

He said young people relied heavily on their peers and the closure of pubs was a major threat to their mental health.

While physical touch helped communities feel connected, for the meantime, virtual pubs would have to do.

"You could still have a drink, or a non-alcoholic drink, using social media platforms like Facebook or Zoom," Professor McGorry said.

"It's not quite the same, of course."


© ABC 2020

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