By Jed Lanyon and Romy Stephens
Several Yarra Valley towns could be reclassified as regional in a bid to ease coronavirus restrictions, following a community campaign led by Council and local MPs.
Yarra Ranges Council passed a motion to formally request the State Government to reclassify smaller townships of the Yarra Ranges as regional at its 8 September meeting.
The motion requested the reclassification of Ryrie Ward, O’Shannassy Ward and some communities of Chandler Ward, and therefore be excluded from tough metropolitan Melbourne lockdowns.
O’Shannassy Ward Councillor Jim Child said there were numerous isolated communities in his ward, including Matlock, Powelltown, Reefton, East Warburton.
Cr Child said many of these towns had zero active Covid-19 cases, yet were still putting up with tough Stage 4 restrictions.
“The first is our one and only resident up at Matlock … (who’s) lived up there for a long time,” he said.
“The distance is 100 kilometres from her front gate to the Yarra Junction Woolworths…To maintain her 5 kilometre radius around her residence, that means she cannot commute to Woods Point where her network community is and she is in such an isolated position.
“You look at Powelltown, a small community, a mill there working employs so many people and again, isolated.”
Ryrie Ward Councillor Fiona McAllister said the State Government’s decision to implement restrictions based on Local Government boundaries was “wrong” and wasn’t working.
“We have no active cases in any part of our rural communities and the numbers have been extremely low throughout, in fact lower than many other regional and rural areas,” she said.
“We are rural in so many ways. Our wineries, which we are world-renowned for, are primarily family-owned.
“We are an agricultural area, we have a phenomenal rate of small businesses which don’t have the resilience to survive what we’re going through. And tourism of course which we are so proud of but is literally dying around us at the moment.
“If we were to be reclassified as rural or regional, we could open our doors in the Yarra Valley to people from other parts of regional Victoria and businesses could start to recommence.
Cr McAllister said the Yarra Valley was often considered regional for tourism and funding purposes but “strangely enough” not for Covid-19 restrictions.
Healesville resident James Gray started a petition lobbying the State Government for rural classification for smaller Yarra Valley towns.
“Historically our numbers are all low, but we’ve been tarred with a bad brush from the Kirkbrae home in Kilsyth, which is keeping the numbers in the Yarra Ranges high,” he said.
The petition, created on 6 September, has gathered over 3400 signatures.
“It’s really heartening to see people won’t just lie down and accept whatever the politicians are going to dish out as to what they think is rational … We’re suffering out here the same as anywhere else. But there’s no need to extend the suffering,” Mr Gray said.
“You just have to walk down the main street of Healesville to see how bad small business is. I wouldn’t be surprised if small businesses in the Valley go to the wall and never recover.”
Local MPs have also been calling for the reclassification of some suburbs.
Evelyn MP Bridget Vallence said she was calling on the State Government to “urgently remove” the Yarra Valley’s inclusion in the metropolitan Melbourne lockdown.
“There is nothing metropolitan about the Yarra Valley, and there’s no medical evidence for locking up our country communities. The only reason why the Yarra Valley has been included is because of arbitrary bureaucratic lines drawn on a map,” she said.
“By comparison, Geelong was able to continue with limited restrictions due to their status as part of regional Victoria, despite having 44 per cent more total Covid-19 cases than the Yarra Ranges.
“Labor’s one-size-fits-all approach is doing untold damage to the Yarra Valley community and small businesses.”
Eildon Mp Cindy McLeish raised the issue in parliament in early September. She said Covid-19 restrictions have been in place for “a lot longer than people were expecting.”
“Stage 4 has been in place in that metropolitan area for about six weeks and it looks as though it will be another couple of weeks, so it is a couple of months,” she said.
“For country Victoria things have been relatively Covid-free for some time. I know that at Easter people were exceptionally worried about cross-infection, and they still are because they see a lot of the things that the government have put in place have not quite worked.”
A State Government spokesperson told Star Mail that the current strategy is working.
“We understand that everyone is making huge sacrifices, but this strategy is working, and we are driving cases down. We have different roadmaps for metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria because they are experiencing the virus differently.
“We have seen how quickly this virus can spread and it is critical that we continue to slow movement across our metropolitan suburbs, regional towns and between these areas to slow the spread of the virus, so we can take cautious steps towards reopening guided by dates and data.”
Monbulk MP James Merlino was contacted for comment but did not repond by deadline.