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COVID life – our ‘new normal’ – is going to be weird for a while

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And those Australians hoping that things will return to normal sooner rather than later are being warned not to hold their breath.

“Aspects of this new, strange way of life will be with us for a long time to come,” Professor Stephen Duckett, director of the health program at the Grattan Institute, told news.com.au.

Take the recent experience of Ebby Carson who went to the Blue Mountains with her family for a weekend getaway.

“We go all the time, but it was such a bizarre experience,” Ms Caron said.

“We got there and figured we’d have lunch, but the lounge was at capacity so we went out in the town to eat, but a lot of the little venues are closed at the moment.

“The hotel does this big, beautiful buffet breakfast but now a staff member walks around with you, you tell them what you want and they plate it for you. It was a bit weird.

“There was no table service – it was still a buffet, but you had to be walked around and have a staff member get your bacon and eggs.”

It also made going back for seconds a little awkward, she joked.

“I mean, it was good that it stopped me overeating. You know what it’s like at a buffet! I didn’t want them to think I was a pig so I restrained myself.”

It’s just a small glimpse into the new normal that COVID-19 has thrust on everyone.

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‘TIS THE SEASON TO BE CAUTIOUS

Christmas is 178 days away – less than six months – and it’s going to be a very different festive season this time around.

“Christmas is typically a very family focused time for Australians,” Prof Duckett said. “We all get together with each other at that time of year.”

But the practicalities of hosting family and friends will be challenging, given the restrictions on household gatherings and the need to socially distancing.

“Most of us don’t live in mansions obviously so it’s going to be hard to stay 1.5m apart from each other at Christmas lunch,” he said.

“We have to hope we’ll be down to zero by then so it’ll be safer to be in a small, confined space, but for a long time to come we’ll have to be thoughtful about our interactions with each other.”

That’s especially the case with elderly loved ones who are more at risk of COVID-19.

Nanna might not get to see the grandkids tear through their Santa stockings this year if she’s in the at-risk age bracket or has a chronic illness.

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Spending time with family has changed in the COVID world. Stevee Savill introduced her new twins to extended family over Zoom. Picture: Richard JupeSource:News Corp Australia

HARD TO GET OUT OF TOWN

Hitting the road for a break, even in your own state, will come with its own set of complexities too.

Attractions targeting holiday-makers are bound by strict requirements to ensure social distancing, from caps on attendees to adequate spacing.

Take wineries, for example.

They’re used to hosting both large organised tours and small groups who pop in whenever they like, crowding into confined spaces to try plonk.

Now, those tastings are strictly scheduled, capped and time-limited. Gone are the days of leisurely exploring different vineyards at your own pace, for now at least.

In her recent experience, Ms Carson said hotel guests were required to book a time to have a drink in the bar area, which set a limit on the number of punters who could be in the lounge.

“The lounge was at capacity and we hadn’t thought to book,” she said.

“There were seats at the bar but you can’t sit there because the staff are obviously working behind it. The staff were really lovely so they went to find plastic cups for our wine and we drank them outside by the tennis court. It was eight degrees.”

RELATED: Scientists say more contagious strain of COVID-19 is spreading

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Domestic air travel is slowly returning but will remain at a much lower capacity. Picture: Richard DobsonSource:News Corp Australia

Australians who love hopping on a plane and jetting to holiday destinations like Bali or New York will have to park their plans indefinitely, Prof Duckett said.

International border restrictions are unlikely to ease for quite some time, particularly for those returning to the country.

“Two-week mandatory quarantine in a hotel after an Australian returns home from overseas is going to be the norm indefinitely,” he said.

Using three weeks of annual leave for a week in Kuta, plus the cost of quarantine – some states are moving to charge returnees for it – will make heading abroad unrealistic for most.

The mooted Trans-Tasman travel bubble, allowing free movement between Australia and New Zealand, could still be a way off in light of Victoria’s resurgence in cases.

Reopening the international border to foreigners will probably take even longer, given how successful that measure was in flattening the curve.

“The United States is a basket case, the UK is worrying … if we have anybody flying in, there’s a real chance they’ll bring coronavirus with them,” Prof Duckett said.

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Aussie ski fields are allowed to reopen – but with strict measures in place. Picture: Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

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Getting on a chair lift might be a time-consuming endeavour this season. Picture: Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

GOING TO WORK A WORRY

Some office-dwelling Australians have begun returning to work in stages, with many major businesses instituting measures to minimise risk.

But those strategies pose a logistics nightmare, especially as more and more employees come back.

Imagine you work on an upper floor in a CBD high-rise, where elevators are restricted to no more than two people.

Getting to your desk could be quite a lengthy journey.

“If you’re a business with a couple of floors and a few hundred people, there’s a situation where there could be different teams of people in the office at a certain time,” Prof Duckett said.

RELATED: Your most Googled coronavirus questions

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Sarah Purches and her dog Lenny plan to transition to remote work post-coronavirus. Picture: Jake NowakowskiSource:News Corp Australia

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Restrictions on public transport capacity will see many people work from home for longer. Picture: Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

Some companies are also encouraging staff to continue working from home indefinitely.

“We might not be in the office at the same time for a very long while,” Prof Duckett said.

“It’s partly because of the practicalities like lifts only being able to take two people at a time, but also the risk of public transport and getting people to and from work.

“It’s also the risk to the business. If a business has to go back into quarantine because of an infection outbreak, the disruption will be much greater than having people work from home.”

WEDDING BELLS TO STAY QUIETER

Sydney bride-to-be Britt Nabarro was eagerly putting the finishing touches on her wedding, scheduled for March 26, when coronavirus threw a spanner in the works.

“I had 200 guests organised, my dress and shoes and seven bridesmaids ready and waiting,” Ms Nabarro said.

“Then they cancelled international flights and it meant my two brothers, one living in New York and the other in New Zealand, couldn’t come.

“My fiancé’s sister had just landed from New York but she just turned around and went back home again not wanting to get stranded here.”

Bans on non-essential gatherings came into force and Ms Nabarro and her fiance Josh were forced to cancel their big day.

In the end, they held a wedding at home in their unit with both sets of parents, in order to satisfy a limit of no more than five attendees.

“It was a cold night but we sat outside because everybody was pretty nervous of being together inside,” she said.

Ms Nabarro has now tentatively rescheduled her wedding for mid-December but is playing things by ear, given there’s still an international travel ban – and a limit on how many people can hit the dancefloor.

“The most important thing is friends, family and dancing,” she said.

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Griffin couple Grant and Sarah Mason on their small and socially distanced wedding day. Picture: AAPSource:News Corp Australia

Wedding planner Kerstyn Walsh from the business Hire a Bridesmaid said the recent relaxation of rules had prompted a flurry of new inquiries.

“The phone has been ringing hot from new brides keen to get going with their wedding plans,” Ms Walsh said.

“Many had just got engaged before the pandemic started and so they had held off. Others had postponed their wedding and are now getting back on track with a new date.”

The pandemic has required the industry to implement strict procedures surrounding social distancing, hygiene and safety.

“Venues are ensuring thorough deep cleaning and availability of hand sanitisers and are spacing out tables and seating areas to stick to distancing rules,” she said.

While brides-to-be are trying to stay optimistic about the easing restrictions, Ms Walsh doesn’t think weddings will ever quite go back to how they were just a short time ago.

“People are going to be more aware of social distancing – they might not automatically hug the bride and groom.

“Traditional sit-down meals with individual plates may replace buffets and grazing tables, weddings may reduce in numbers and ‘health and safety’ procedures issued with the invitation may become the norm.

“Destination weddings will decrease due to travel restrictions.”

RELATED: Cool things you couldn’t do pre-coronavirus

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Victoria has reintroduced restrictions following a surge in new coronavirus cases. Picture: Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

ON-AGAIN, OFF-AGAIN RESTRICTIONS

Authorities could be forced to maintain a very fluid approach to public health measures too.

“Victoria got down to the single digits and started relaxing restrictions, then fast forward to Monday and there were 75 new cases,” Prof Duckett said.

Victorian authorities are considering instituting suburb-level lockdowns in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus in hot spots.

It also reintroduced some social distancing measures when numbers began to surge.

“Some states like New South Wales and Victoria, but particularly Victoria, might maintain this pattern of getting cases low then seeing a spike that they have to get on top of.”

Flare-ups like that might see states and territories keep their borders closed to areas still grappling with outbreaks.

For example, South Australia has now announced it will delay its reopening in light of the situation in Victoria.

THE IMPACT ON WELLBEING

Across the board, mental health practitioners are reporting a sharp uptick in the number of people seeking support.

One study from the University of Melbourne found 30 per cent of respondents reported “moderate to high levels of anxiety and depression”.

Research by Monash University of the mental wellbeing of more than 13,000 Australians also found one-quarter were experiencing “clinically significant” depression – up significantly from a typically rate of 3.7 per cent.

Crisis support service Lifeline has also reported a mammoth increase in calls to its 24-hour counselling hotline over recent months.

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Kristy Love celebrates her birthday with friends Sarah Makin and Christi Hamon by having a unique dinner in her driveway. Picture: Che ChorleySource:News Corp Australia

While most Australians have been impacted by the coronavirus crisis in some way, but a new report highlights how young people are particularly struggling.

The youth unemployment rate has hit a worrying 16 per cent and is expected to climb even higher, given hard-hit industries like hospitality and the arts are staffed predominantly by young Aussies.

South Australia’s Commissioner for Children and Young People said respondents to its latest survey found there’s a general sense of uncertainty about what the future holds.

Most felt concern about being able to access safe and stable work, both now and in the years ahead.

Young Australians are also feeling hopeless and helpless during COVID-19, due to a loss of economic and social participation.

AN EVOLUTION OF EVENTS

Aside from weddings, throwing an event of any kind will continue to be a challenging endeavour for some time to come.

Whether it’s a birthday bash or a corporate conference, limits on attendees and social distancing requirements will make them look and feel quite different.
Ms Carson runs the business Little Bird Boutique Events, which throws boho picnics that used to average 60 to 80 guests, but could cater for as many as 200 people.

“We’re still limited to 20, so it’s had a huge impact,” she said.

But she’s also been able to pivot to take advantage of an emerging market for intimate events for corporate clients.

“They can’t do those massive conferences and functions anymore, so they are looking at small, intimate and boutique outdoor events,” she said.

RELATED: How one person can infect an entire restaurant

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A patron signs in at a cafe in Melbourne. Picture: AAPSource:AAP

Governments are making tentative plans to allow sporting game spectators to return in limited and socially distanced numbers.

But the sudden change of AFL match fixtures this week due to concerns about Victoria’s outbreak illustrates that plans can shift at the last minute.

Large concerts are also still on the backburner.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales was forced to postpone its annual Archibald Prize exhibit to September.

And the Sydney Opera House remains closed.

MASKS ARE THE NEW BLACK

In simpler times, the latest must-have accessories were usually technology or fashion-related, but these days it’s more likely to fall into the hygiene category.

While the official health advice remains that wearing a face mask is only necessary if you’re feeling unwell, it seems more and more of us are keen to don one while out and about.

Gavin Hodgkins, chief executive officer of FloatPac Group – a Melbourne manufacturer of cotton masks – said there’s been a 200 per cent increase in sales in the past several weeks.

“The global position on masks seems to vary wildly, but we’re seeing a definite upswing as people are perhaps increasingly aware that coronavirus isn’t going away,” Mr Hodgins said.

“Over the last two weeks we’ve experienced a 90 per cent increase in website traffic and a spike in wholesale inquiries from businesses wanting to protect their staff and reassure their customers.”

RELATED: Why aren’t Australians being made to wear masks?

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Expect to see more people wearing face masks as a safety safety measure while out and about. Picture: Brett CostelloSource:News Corp Australia

Debate surrounding whether people should wear masks whenever they’re outside is increasing, particularly in light of Victoria’s resurgence in infections.

With this in mind, as well as the colder weather, expect to see face masks becoming the norm.

PROTECTING THE VULNERABLE

How people generally spend time with nanna and pop will also remain very different in the mid-term, experts say, and that requires urgent attention.

Loneliness is something many people likely felt during lockdown, but experts say the consequences of isolation are more severe on the elderly.

Even residents of aged care facilities felt lonely, despite being surrounded by their peers, because of reduced visitor numbers, restrictions on movement and lockdowns.

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Cathy Ratcliffe video calls her elderly mother regularly. Picture: Brendan RadkeSource:News Corp Australia

In older people, loneliness is associated with negative physical and mental health outcomes like high blood pressure, cognitive decline and even early death.

“There is growing evidence that older people who are lonely or isolated may also be at a higher risk of exacerbating the onset and trajectory of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” , Australian Catholic University senior research fellow in aged care Bridget Laging wrote for The Conversation.

Maintaining connections during the ‘new normal’ will help to support the mental health of ageing Australians.

Ms Laging said there are creative ways of taking existent programs shown to benefit wellbeing – volunteer visitors, music therapy and broader community activities – into the socially distanced era.

“Technology such as Zoom, Skype and FaceTime, for instance, can support older people in residential aged care to meaningfully connect with family and friends,” she said.

“The use of smartphones in aged care settings has already been associated with increased social support for both residents and their families, helping them to feel closer and providing reassurance.

“When technology isn’t available, gestures as simple as a regular telephone chat can provide a significant boost to a resident’s wellbeing.”

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