Nick Carroll: COVID-19, The Aussie Experiment

30 Apr 2020 16 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Photo: Billy Watts

Photo: Billy Watts


This story was originally written for and published by Surfline

Man, surfing in the world of COVID is a weird scene.

Unless you’re actually surfing, you don’t know what to make of it. And even then.

At Lennox Head on the NSW north coast, close to where Queensland has closed its border in only one direction and restricted surfing Snapper, Burleigh and D-Bah to residents only, police have issued $27,000 in fines, mostly to people who have driven from the Gold Coast to surf the Lennox area.

Think about that. Like: why would you LEAVE a place where only you can surf, in order to go somewhere a whole lot of other people can surf, when you know it’s illegal? Queenslanders!

In the Bells Beach area in Victoria, where the Rip Curl Pro at Bells has had to be cancelled for the first time in 59 years, the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation actively lobbied the local State government to try to have surfing banned at Bells and other nearby spots. Yep, an organisation that claims to represent surfers wanted to stop people from surfing. (Surfrider has since walked back its stance, after the State government and Surf Coast Shire decided to keep surfing.)

Meanwhile, Surfing Australia recently became the first surfing organisation in the world to announce a re-commencement of competition — the Australian championships, which attract over 600 competitors from around the nation, and which they’ve announced will be held in August. (Thinking they must have some inside scoop that by August people would be allowed to travel and congregate in serious numbers, we asked SA to clarify; they said their August dates were in fact “holding” dates and the event might be moved back to September.)

A super wacky world! Yet despite these little moments, Australia has provided a beacon of surfing sanity in these strange times.

Aside from a handful of places, like Sydney’s big-city beaches of Bondi, Bronte, Tamarama and Maroubra, most beaches have remained open throughout the crisis. Even a few other city beaches closed through the recent Easter break had their doors propped judiciously open the whole time for local surfers who were willing to show up, surf, and leave without fuss.

Result: a lot of surfers getting a lot of good waves, and seemingly no related spreading of COVID-19.

In my own area, the further northern beaches of Sydney, an area with a population of around 42,000 people, the surf has been excellent for almost all of April. Surfing crowds have been way the hell above normal. Yet the case load for the entire area sits at 17 and has barely budged in the past three weeks. Almost all of these cases have been traced to international or cruise ship travel.

Photo: Jeremiah Klein

Photo: Jeremiah Klein

In other parts of coastal Australia, the numbers are static or non-existent. On the Gold Coast for instance, a local government area with a population of 606,774 and one of the most heavily surfed stretches of coast in the world, there are 52 cases — .00008% of the population. There has been minimal local transmission in the area.

Likewise on the Sunshine Coast, home to Noosa etc, where 346,522 people live and crazy numbers of them surf. Here there are 13 cases of COVID-19, none as a result of local transmission.

In Newcastle, in the Merewether postcode, another very heavily surfed area, there are two cases in a population of 11,000. This has been static since the beginning of April.

In Ballina Shire on the NSW north coast, home to Lennox Head and numerous other excellent surf spots which have been heavily targeted by surf travellers from Queensland and from the cluster-affected Byron Shire to the north, there are nine cases of COVID-19 and no sign of any local transmission at all.

In the Surf Coast Shire, which encompasses Torquay and the Bells area, all the way down to Lorne, with 32,251 residents, there are 10 cases of COVID-19. Barely budged since before Easter when there were eight.

In Western Australia, where people are not permitted to travel beyond their region, the case load in Augusta-Margaret River is so low it doesn’t appear to have been considered by the WA government, which lists the cases as “less than five”. Same for the Geraldton area (Kalbarri) and Carnarvon (Gnaraloo etc).

The only major surfing postcode where cases have continued to spike is Bondi — and ironically, Bondi’s been shut to surfing since the end of March. (It will re-open next week, strictly for surfing and swimming.)

Maybe this just shows Australia is doing a lot of other stuff right.

But at the very least, so far, our local and national experience shows that when it’s practiced under the same provisos as other forms of exercise — don’t travel too far, don’t congregate, observe social distancing, surf then head home — surfing’s not hurting anyone.

But when the pandemic response began in earnest here six weeks ago, nobody knew anything about that.

So what happened? Why did the northern beaches stay open, for instance, when Bondi and Maroubra were closed?

We asked Northern Beaches mayor Michael Regan to work through it with us. “Essentially, the State government did not close the beaches and left it up to city councils to manage,” Michael told us. “They did close ocean pools and all other public/private swimming pools — outdoor and indoor. We decided to keep our beaches open and actively manage it around the laws passed … we made the decision to say exercise on the sand is fine, swim in the ocean is fine, just obey the social distance rules. But don’t stop and sunbake, or picnic on the sand or in reserves.”

Photo: Jeremiah Klein

Photo: Jeremiah Klein

Swimming pool lifeguards and other employees from the city’s closed facilities were shifted to beaches, and along with rangers and the police, became part of the mission to keep people moving — the only way the beaches could remain open.

Michael added: “We then changed our parking to one hour only at the beach, to ensure there was no temptation to come from other places to surf. The police also stepped up their operations in pulling drivers over and checking addresses. Our beach car parking counts showed all that worked. The people at the beach were largely locals — identified by their council beach parking sticker.”

Three weeks down the track, it appears the decision to stay open was the right one.

Still — in such a populated area, why do it? Why not just shut down, the way much of California did, and be done with it? Michael: “It’s part of our DNA. It is why we choose to live here. Any closure like that at Bondi would significantly impact our mental health.

“Surfing is huge on the beaches …and with a population of 277,000 all working at home or holidaying at home, it was critical to ensure beaches remained open. And that we actively managed the social distance rules. Most people try and do the right thing.”

It also had the benefit of being in tune with common sense.

Everyone who surfs even a little a bit knows it can be done without breaking social distancing and all that jazz, no more and maybe less than if they went to the supermarket.

Like a Maroubra local I spoke with recently — a kid who took part in a minor surfer rebellion at the Bra, which may have been one reason Maroubra was re-opened this week — said: “If they could have given me one sensible reason why I shouldn’t surf my home break, I’d have listened. But they couldn’t.”

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