Port Stephens community, business leaders reflect on COVID-19 as NSW reaches 100 day milestone

From top left to bottom right: Leah Anderson, Rob Daniels, Meryl Miller, Superintendent Chad Gillies, Gordon Laffan, Allan Cassano, Kim and Claire Burbridge, Kate Washington, Sue Pollock and Gary Ramponi.
From top left to bottom right: Leah Anderson, Rob Daniels, Meryl Miller, Superintendent Chad Gillies, Gordon Laffan, Allan Cassano, Kim and Claire Burbridge, Kate Washington, Sue Pollock and Gary Ramponi.

It has been 100 days since the state government locked down NSW in response to COVID-19. To mark the milestone, the Examiner asked a number of Port Stephens community leaders to reflect on the past four months and their pandemic experiences.

Kate Washington, Port Stephens MP: With COVID-19 restrictions in place, home life became much quieter whilst work life became even busier.

New rules and restrictions were introduced rapidly and changed frequently. My team and I did our best to stay across changes so we could help those who were struggling. I spoke to many people, hearing stories of hardship, uncertainty and fear. When rules weren't working and where there were gaps, I was pushing for changes that would help our community.

On the home front, I was fortunate to have all my teenage children still living at home so I knew they were safe and well. Every day I was grateful to live in beautiful Port Stephens with our easy access to beaches and bush walks.

For me, Port Stephens felt like an oasis amidst a world in crisis. As restrictions relax, I'm hopeful we'll continue to be spared the worst of this awful virus.

Kate Washington, Port Stephens MP: "For me, Port Stephens felt like an oasis amidst a world in crisis."

Kate Washington, Port Stephens MP: "For me, Port Stephens felt like an oasis amidst a world in crisis."

Superintendent Chad Gillies, Port Stephens-Hunter Police District commander: Like everyone, I was forced to absorb and respond to the many changes as a result of COVID-19.

Internally, my main tasks were to provide a safe workplace for the police and unsworn staff so that we could maintain normal operations. Like most workplaces we were required to think laterally and redesign some of our basic work practices, especially those on the frontline and dealing with and engaging with people at a time of great uncertainty.

Educating police on their responsibilities under the Public Health Orders, during an ever-changing environment was a challenge for senior police. Externally I needed to ensure police were out and about; reassuring the communities through these unprecedented times. Police were vigilant with potential threats of public order issues - linked to heightened anxiety with panic buying.

Gradually, the police role has moved from the function of enforcement around self-isolation and non-essential travel - to educating the broader community on how to safely navigate through relaxed social restrictions. Our overall goal remains to assist people, genuinely trying to do the right thing by themselves and others. As a society, we are all faced with fighting complacency as a current challenge.

Superintendent Chad Gillies: "As a society, we are all faced with fighting complacency as a current challenge."

Superintendent Chad Gillies: "As a society, we are all faced with fighting complacency as a current challenge."

Leah Anderson, Nelson Bay business leader: I will never forget the past 100 days. My concerns first and foremost was the health and safety of family and friends, our community, for everyone. News across the world was devastating and as Australia started to lock down I wondered how we would ever recover. As a business owner, I had to close up the office and work from home, trying to assist my clients with hardship support with the banks.

As president of the Tomaree Business Chamber and board director of Destination Port Stephens, I worked with our team to proactively reach out and offer whatever support we could for our local businesses. Making calls and scheduling weekly zoom meetings for our members to connect and to share information on what government support, grants, rent assistance etc was available, and just to let them know they were not alone when they needed support the most.

I have learnt many lessons: gratitude, how valuable and precious time with family is, how online Zoom meetings can save many hours driving to and fro and making for a more productive day, and importantly, how resilient we all are. It is truly amazing to see how our community supported each other through this global pandemic, and continues to do so.

Leah Anderson, Nelson Bay business leader: "I will never forget the past 100 days."

Leah Anderson, Nelson Bay business leader: "I will never forget the past 100 days."

Sue Pollock, Port Stephens Family and Neighbourhood Services manager: Corona presented lots of challenges for us in our work. We did lots of things differently and our creative skills (ones we didn't know we had) certainly came to the fore.

Sue Pollock, PFANS manager: "The biggest challenge was responding to domestic and family violence when the majority of services... were moving to phone and online based work."

Sue Pollock, PFANS manager: "The biggest challenge was responding to domestic and family violence when the majority of services... were moving to phone and online based work."

The beginning of the restrictions saw us scrambling to secure tickets on a repatriation flight for a woman and her little child to their home country, who were in one of our safe houses after being subjected domestic violence here. We had to navigate systems that had been set up quickly because of corona; very hard to gain certainty when there was none.

We did lots of drop offs each day to homes, hotels and caravan parks, things like food parcels, kids activity and comfort packs, safety phones and devices, internet devices for children schooling at home. The biggest challenge was responding to domestic and family violence when the majority of services, both ourselves and others, were moving to phone and online based work. We weren't able to sit with women like we usually would which caused lots of worry. Workers also found it hard to do this work within their own homes with their own little children about.

Rob Daniels, Two Bobs Bakery owner: "We are grateful our customers understand we are doing things a different way."

Rob Daniels, Two Bobs Bakery owner: "We are grateful our customers understand we are doing things a different way."

Corona also meant we couldn't provide services to as many people as we usually would. For instance, our parenting group programs were conducted via Zoom; we had to have smaller numbers so participants could still engage with the programs. So we felt some anxiety knowing many people were waiting to participate in a group for too long.

We now have all our staff back in our offices and sites and are running a number of smaller face to face groups. We anticipate being able to start our playgroups next term again so we are busy planning how to be COVID safe in an environment with lots of littlies and their parents and carers.

Rob Daniels, Two Bobs Bakery, Nelson Bay: COVID-19 has forced us to adopt new measures so that we can continue to operate the business with the new restrictions. We are grateful our customers understand we are doing things a different way.

Kim and Claire Burbridge, Nelson Bay designers: "The scariest thing for us was having to shutdown with very little notice."

Kim and Claire Burbridge, Nelson Bay designers: "The scariest thing for us was having to shutdown with very little notice."

Allan Cassano, Nelson Bay Denture Clinic: The scariest thing for us was having to shutdown with very little notice. Originally we were told it could be six months. Despite restrictions being reduced to Level 1, we have opted to maintain Level 2 restrictions for the safety and health of our customers and staff.

Kim and Claire Burbridge, Burbridge and Burke Designers, Nelson Bay: It was quite depressing to be forced shut after only three months of operation. However, we were fortunate that we had already established an online store which took off during the lockdown.

Gordon Laffan, Club Lemon Tree CEO: "I have a totally different view of my business than I did 100 days ago."

Gordon Laffan, Club Lemon Tree CEO: "I have a totally different view of my business than I did 100 days ago."

Gary Ramponi, Nelson Bay Newsagency: We lost more than 60 per cent of business but kept our doors open with reduced hours. If it was not for the support of locals we may not be here today. JobKeeper was also beneficial to our staff.

Gordon Laffan, Club Lemon Tree: I have a totally different view of my business than I did 100 days ago. I believe no business will remain the same. Things will have to be done differently and for the better in regard to health and safety.

Meryl Miller, Port Stephens Community Arts Centre publicity officer: "We are continuing to create wonderful objects which will be on display when we are able to open to the public once more."

Meryl Miller, Port Stephens Community Arts Centre publicity officer: "We are continuing to create wonderful objects which will be on display when we are able to open to the public once more."

Meryl Miller, Port Stephens Community Arts Centre: As early as February we realised the huge threat of the coronavirus and the board started thinking about the safety of our members. The vision of the arts centre is cultivating creativity and friendship via community arts and crafts. Our loss of community friendship was going to be the most difficult aspect of closing the arts centre. As the virus took hold the board decided to close the arts centre on March 23.

During lockdown the leaders of the 14 different craft groups kept in contact with their members and set weekly challenges. Many groups took to online opportunities. With the gradual opening of public places, the Port Stephens Community Arts Centre has officially registered as a COVID Safe business. The premises were thoroughly cleaned and our craft rooms have been set up for social distancing using the on person per 4 square metre rule.

On July 1, activities resumed with many groups scheduling additional sessions to cater for the number of members. The gallery will only open to the public once the safety of our members is assured. In the meantime, we are continuing to create wonderful objects which will be on display when we are able to open to the public once more.

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