With its richly deserved status as the cultural capital of Australia, it is difficult to remove the association between Melbourne and its vibrant nightlife. Its nightlife is a crucial representation of the city’s character, attraction and societal tradition. However, this vivacity was and remains threatened by COVID-19—as specific businesses were forced to close, restricting Melbourne’s twilight festivities. As we recover from the uncertainties of COVID-19, there are still doubts about whether nightlife could ever return to what it was before the pandemic.
Whilst evening entertainment is seemingly economically driven, the constructive impacts it has on individual and communal well being are not to be minimised. Night-time events allow for increased employment opportunities in relevant industries, encourage socialisation and appreciation of contemporary culture—all of which define Melbourne as a city.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had immense influence not only on certain businesses but also on specific groups; it brought the city’s nightlife and all benefits associated with the industry to a standstill. However, this also meant a de-escalation of negative socio-economic externalities of the industry.
Therefore, as the city attempts to return to normalcy, there is an implication of adverse consequences for the revival of Melbourne’s nightlife. This article will discuss the conflicting perspectives on the restoration of night-time revelries and explore as to what the negatives and positives imply for the entire community.
Melbourne’s Nightlife through the Pandemic
Nightlife is an often-maligned industry which not only significantly contributes to atmosphere and liveability, but also provides beneficial support to a city’s economy. Melbourne’s night-time economy is valued at a staggering $3.5 billion and the overall night-time economy produced nearly $134bn turnover for the 2017-2018 year while accounting for 8.7% of the Australian workforce (895,000 jobs). Thus, the relevant industries play an important role in supporting the city’s economy and society.
The onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic was particularly challenging for this vital sector and this was bound to have a negative effect on the city’s economic situation. Reporting a $12 billion decline in sales turnover, the night-time economy hit rock bottom in 2020 as one in five workers lost their employment. Moreover these negative implications were not limited to the industry as sustained suspension of night life activities were also reported to have a profoundly detrimental effect on societal wellbeing. The role of the nightlife sector as a hub of social well-being as well as providing community interaction cannot be overstated as LGBTQIA+ young people struggled to access “social and community spaces” amid the closure of night-time venues across Australia.
However, as previously mentioned the nightlife economy has its criticisms and the pandemic may have reduced the deleterious externalities of the industries. For instance, several suburbs and communities across Melbourne have recorded lower levels of crime and drunk/disorderly behaviour due to the same venue shutdown.
Thus, the extent to which the night-life economy should be supported and encouraged by government officials has been a contentious issue in recent history and there are unfavourable outcomes that seem to be associated with the industry. However, as highlighted, there are also undeniable economic and social benefits of the city’s nightlife that were sorely missed at the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Recovery and the Measures to Safeguard the Future of the Industry
Concerns over the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Melbourne’s nightlife have already led to considerable action, such as the formation of The City of Melbourne’s ‘Night-time Economy Advisory Committee’ in 2021 or the recently announced liquor license reforms by the Victorian Government where restaurants, bars and cafes can continue trading until 1am, an extension from the previous 11pm required closure time.
Many of Melbourne’s CBD-based events have returned, including the Moomba Festival, the Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show, or the upcoming Australian Grand Prix and Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Such events have successfully attracted crowds to the CBD and revived Melbourne’s nightlife in many ways. It is the hope of many that these large scale events will reinvigorate the Melbourne’s entertainment industry as a whole.
However, the return of these events also marks the return of violent incidents in the CBD and noise complaints by residents near late-night venues, both of which were subdued during the city’s lockdown periods. In particular, recent data form the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne shows a 50% increase in the number of stabbing victims treated over December – February from the same period in 2021. However, with much media attention surrounding these incidents, there is hope that correct prevention measures taken can make the city’s transition to pre-pandemic nightlife a safe one.
Recently, low occupancy rates in CBD offices as workers continue to prefer remote working has raised concerns that perhaps the pre-COVID CBD will never be seen again. Remote/hybrid working arrangements have also encouraged a shift away from CBD living and in 2020-2021, Melbourne lost 1.2% of its population to overseas and elsewhere in Australia. These changes have triggered calls for a four-day work week and a CBD-wide ‘twilight period focus’ to revive the city’s nightlife. The former will have the effect of an additional night-out in the calendar week while the latter aims to draw families to the city and keep the office crowd after work.
Hence, the reaction to the slow revival of Melbourne’s nightlife has been divisive. It has become apparent that the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way the city’s population live and work. This could mean that the attempts to return to pre-pandemic nightlife levels may be an impossible pursuit.
Regardless of what the future of Melbourne’s nightlife will look like may be a question, its vibrancy undeniably projects. The Government has endeavoured to protect this image and its benefits to society. Yet, while the re-opening of businesses provided efficient relief and has been met with joy by many, it is still questioned if these positives outweigh the underlying negative effects of nightlife. Thus, as society begins to acclimatise to the virus and the city’s nightlife recovers, future steps must be carefully considered in order to overcome emerging challenges.
The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.
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