This blog is part of a series relating to the economic impacts of the COVID-19, novel coronavirus outbreak of 2020.
The Australian Government announced late Sunday evening a significant crackdown on public gatherings in response to COVID-19, seeing the closure of many indoor spaces, including clubs, pubs, gyms, cinemas and religious venues, from midday Monday.
As detailed in our last blog, almost half of all casual employees are under the age of 25. Furthermore, the majority of casual workers are employed in the hospitality, retail and recreation industries, a significant portion of the industries that will be hit hardest by the pandemic. The closure of pubs, clubs, cinemas and casinos will result in many young people suddenly without work. Restaurants and cafes will stay open but only provide takeaway and delivery services, significantly reducing the number of waitstaff needed.
The announcement of these new regulations came just one day after hundreds of people flocked to Bondi and neighbouring beaches over the weekend despite calls for social distancing and an official ban on mass gatherings.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison condemned beachgoers, declaring that “what happened at Bondi Beach yesterday was not okay and served as a message to federal and state leaders that too many Australians are not taking these issues seriously enough”. Other government and health officials echoed his sentiments, calling the behaviour “irresponsible” and “unacceptable”. So why did so many people forego public health concerns in favour of a beach day?
To understand this behaviour, we must turn to the economic understanding of rationality. Rational choice theory posits that, when faced with a decision, an individual will weigh up the costs and benefits of each option and choose the one that provides them with the maximum amount of personal utility – in other words, that which most benefits their self-interest. When faced with the conundrum of what to do on a sunny afternoon, the people who chose to go to Bondi Beach in the middle of a pandemic decided to do so because it was the choice that provided them with the most satisfaction. These individuals thus behaved in a rational way by making choosing to maximise the fulfilment of their “own personal desires”.
To justify their actions, beachgoers offered a variety of explanations as to why they were gathering in public despite warnings. One cited the nice weather, stating, “we all still want to get outside… I think as a community everyone needs something to feel good about.” Another person nonchalantly declared, “I’m not too fussed about it, to be honest… I’m not sitting on top of people right now.” One man suggested that, due to a lack of clear rules around social distancing, “people aren’t taking it seriously.” This sentiment was countered by another, who said, “I think everybody’s taking it very seriously but when you’ve got a weekend and you’re still allowed to have some time at the beach, don’t touch people, don’t get too close… I think it’s okay but I think everybody’s still very conscious and cautious of it.”
While these people didn’t seem too phased, footage of Bondi Beach over the weekend went viral online and garnered widespread criticism from medical and government officials as well as the general public. Many have cited the Federal government’s mixed messages around the coronavirus pandemic – namely, urging social distancing but keeping schools open – as contributing to the apparent disregard for public health warnings. Others pointed out the hypocrisy in the government’s actions, closing the beaches yet allowing passengers to disembark a cruise ship docked in Sydney Harbour on Thursday which had reported 158 illnesses on board. A Twitter user named Phil Hassey ridiculed the Commonwealth’s slow response to the pandemic, tweeting, “Thank goodness last Friday was hot and everyone went to #Bondi. Otherwise government may not have acted for another week.”
For now, public beaches will continue to close whenever a head count exceeds 500 people. The landscape and regulations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic are constantly shifting, causing many to feel uncertain about the future of their favourite leisure activities. As Joey Goldman, a frequent Bondi surfer, remarked, “soon we’re probably not going to be able to surf so might as well get in some waves now.”