“Shackles” released as work-from-home, mask rules scrapped

David Schout

The removal of two key COVID restrictions represents a releasing of the “shackles” for CBD workers and traders, according to Lord Mayor Sally Capp.

From Friday, February 25, state government advice to work from home where possible and the office mask mandate were both scrapped in what the government called a “safe and sensible return to the office”.

While Victorians would still need to wear a mask in higher-risk settings, the removal of the office edict — which had been described as a “handbrake” on the return of CBD workers by Property Council director Danni Hunter — was crucial, according to the Lord Mayor.

“The shackles are off, and people can now feel confident to come back into the city for work. Good coffees, long lunches, the theatre after work, pre-drinks before footy at the G – the Melbourne we all love is here waiting for you,” Cr Capp said.

“For everyone who has missed the buzz and bumping into their next colleague, their next boss or their next customer, come back to where the magic happens – the city.”  

The news is welcome to the hundreds of CBD traders who so heavily depend on a steady flow of workers coming into the city daily.

In the February edition of CBD News one trader said the Omicron wave was “as bad as lockdown”, with restaurants and retailers dealt the combined blow of plummeting staff numbers due to high case numbers throughout the community.

The decision about masks and work from home advice (plus the tapering of daily cases) meant that while a return to pre-COVID business activity was not expected, businesses could better plan for a steadier flow of clientele.

Premier Daniel Andrews noted the flow-on effect that lifting the mask restrictions would have on local businesses.

“Victorians can head back to work, without needing to wear a mask in the office. And cafes and lunch spots around Victoria can start to welcome back the regulars they’ve missed so much,” he said.

The move represents a sharp shift in government policy.

Less than three weeks prior to the announcement that restrictions would ease, Mr Andrews said masks were “not coming off any time soon” when asked about the prospect of a wide-scale return to the office.

Cr Capp, who had put the hard word on the state government to remove work-from-home advice, said that while a permanent shift to flexible work arrangements had meant the “rhythm of the city has changed”, she was confident workers would return.

“We are doing everything we can to entice you [workers] back because we believe in this city and its possibilities,” she said.

However in comments that could draw the ire of those who have enjoyed the flexibility of working from home, particularly workers who live outside the CBD who have claimed a greater work-life balance during COVID, the Lord Mayor said it was time to “stake your claim in the office.”

“We’ve endured two years of ordinary. Two years of staring at the same four walls. It’s time to move, to interact with new faces and to feel that sense of discovery again,” she said.

 

Reclaim your bedroom as a personal sanctuary, your kitchen for cooking and your lounge room for leisure. Stake your claim in the office and be part of the extraordinary that happens when people cluster to collaborate and innovate.

 

Standoff ends

The lifting of restrictions for workers signals the end of a standoff between the City of Melbourne and state government about the return to work.

While strongly aligned with the state government on messaging through most of the pandemic, a growing frustration between those at Town Hall and Spring St emerged during the past month.

Groups like the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Property Council and NAB had — unsurprisingly — pushed hard for the return of CBD workers.

A statement from the Chamber’s chief executive Paul Guerra on February 17 had spoken of a growing frustration with the government’s decision to hold off on lifting restrictions.

“The many CBD businesses that rely on weekday trade from office workers have been screaming out for a signal of when and how they can return, and they continue to languish while the bills mount up,” Mr Guerra said.

But while those criticisms were expected, Cr Capp’s growing frustration was evident too.

The Lord Mayor said the issue “showed the power of leadership”, and the “importance of what [the government] says.”

“The advice is ‘work from home if you can’, and that’s meant that hundreds of thousands of people are working from home. That leadership, for the Premier to signal that it is COVID-safe to return to workplaces, that’s something that’s absolutely vitally important,” she said in a Joy FM interview on February 5.

“The first thing that we need to see changed is for our Premier, when he feels it safe to do so, to say ‘come on back to city workplaces’. And it really does underline the importance of leadership. That is what people are waiting to hear.”

In announcing the move, Health Minister Martin Foley said the government had balanced the need to support the health system with the wider benefits of easing restrictions •

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