106 days later. How do we do this thing called going out?
Monday’s “freedom day” was marked across Sydney pubs with the kind of orderliness, rule-following tentativeness and the same undercurrent of anxiety that has characterised the entire Covid pandemic.
At the Bank hotel on King Street in Newtown, the general manager Aeden Crimmins stood out the front. All was in order. The pub filled up inside, but due to new Covid restrictions, it was not crowded. Outside there was a queue – socially distanced with security checking everyone’s vaccine certificate and making sure patrons had checked in.
Time moved slow and quick in lockdown. “It’s all been a bit Groundhog Day up until this point,” said Crimmins. “I knew we were going to reopen eventually but it did come a lot quicker than we expected.”
Meanwhile, down Australia Street at the Courthouse hotel, the kitchen was pumping out schnitzels and burgers.
“We got to travel here,” said Emily Hanks from Malabar. “People say ‘You’re so lucky to have your 5km near the beach’, but we missed Newtown.” She and her friends work in the music industry. “It’s been a pretty hard time.”
This (the pub, the beer garden, the people), in its way, was also hard work.
“We were talking about it before, it’s kinda insane – it’s so elevated in terms of anxiety,” said Hanks. “It’s a sensory overload being out of the house and easy to get overstimulated. You’re looking everywhere, there’s a lot going on around you. We’re not used to that.”
At the Erko in Erskineville at 6pm, three friends – Belle, Emma and Nina – had been out since the start of “freedom day”, at midnight the night before.
“The only thing we could find that was open was the Tatts Club,” Emma said, referring to the reliable if slightly less atmospheric 24-hour venue in the city. They started there at midnight, then went home to sleep between 5am and 10am, and were now fuelling up on a plate of wings and pastel-coloured hard seltzers. So the best thing about Monday was the pub’s reopening? “No,” said Belle. “The gyms reopening! I can’t wait to get back there.”
We drove through Redfern. The Glengarry Castle looked inviting – the interior glow of the polished wood and burning lamps, an ambient glow that alchemises a schooner of beer into something more akin to an elixir.
Around the corner at the Woolpack hotel, on the stroke of 7pm they were turning over tables briskly. Out the front there were a few prams – new parents able to introduce their lockdown babies to their friends, as well as people catching up with mates from outside their local government areas, and people who had just missed the pub experience.
“It’s been the thing I’ve missed most,” said Liam Bennett outside the Woolpack. “Just having a schooner at the pub. It tastes different at home.”
We drove into the city. Sydney’s CBD, always problematic and uninviting from a nightlife perspective, felt gloomier than ever. Traffic cones, construction detritus, mobile barriers, neon lights slippery in the rain, the tattered Irish flags flapping outside a backpacker’s pub that was open – but empty.
There was a flicker of life to be found in Chinatown. We saw people in Dixon Street, masked, in pairs, coming to and from restaurants. But turning a corner into Darling Harbour and we could have been on the set of a show about the end of the world. The streets were black, long, empty and riveted with rain. Cargo Bar was shut. The lights of the casino glittered ambiguously. Was it even open?
It could have been easy to get depressed at this point, to think Sydney is never coming back. But then a reality check – it was a Monday night, it was raining, and we were still in a pandemic.
That’s what security told us at the Orient hotel in The Rocks – that people will come back when it’s sunny. The Rocks is the sum of its pubs – there’s not much else there except for Burberry and the opal stores. They went quiet in January 2020 when the Chinese tourists stopped coming. It’s been a long pandemic for The Rocks.
We ended the evening where the end began. The Cross.
The same political party that was now urging us to get back to the bars, pubs and clubs is the same mob that strangled and killed Sydney’s nightlife almost a decade ago. Kings Cross never recovered from the aftermath of liquor licencing rules introduced by the Liberal government after the one-punch death of Thomas Kelly.
But yet, on “freedom day”, the Cross was vibing. Every table set outside overlooking the fountain was full of people drinking wine in the rain. The Potts Point hotel was also buzzing. The foot traffic on Darlinghurst Road was returning. There was a queue for burgers at Oporto.
Nature is healing, as they say. But the healing takes time.