Gippsland dance schools are frustrated by the latest COVID restrictions

Gippsland South MLA Danny O'Brien and Eastern Victorian MLC Melina Bath (front) with Gippsland dance schools representatives (from left) Danceworks 114's Ali Whitby Laws and Tia McNair, Gippsland Academy of Dance's Lisa Capp and Brooke Bourke, Destination Dance's Rebekah Symons, Julie Ryan Dancers' 'Miss Melissa', Jaz Flowers Performing Arts' Jaz Flowers, Lisa Pellin Dancers' Lisa Pellin, In-Step Dance School's Melissa Hall, and Leaps and Bounds Dance School's Holly Trainor and Jenny Cumming. Photo: Contributed

Sarah Luke

FRUSTRATED local dance studios are demanding answers from the state government, after again being shut down with little explanation as to their level of COVID risk.
Under the regional restrictions which lifted at 11.59pm Thursday night, indoor sports facilities were completely closed — that meant dance studios, class-based fitness, spin facilities, swimming pools, steam rooms, saunas, gyms, health clubs and indoor personal training facilities could not open for two weeks.
Under the new restrictions, indoor sport can now reopen, but with limits on the number of people permitted.
One person per four square metres is permitted under the revised restrictions, with no more than 50 indoors, and 10 people per group.
Sale’s Leaps and Bounds Dance School principals Jenny Cumming and Holly Trainor found last month’s news of a fourth state-wide lockdown difficult to stomach after a horror 2020, particularly as Gippsland hasn’t recorded a case in the past six months.
“After all our fighting in 2020, it is disappointing to be forgotten again,” Ms Trainor said.
“Kids’ extracurricular activities should be back in all cases — outdoor and indoor — since they are going to school every day.”
Ms Cumming, who also owns Yoga Space Gippsland (which was also forced to close), added
the dance school was only full open for 18 weeks last year.
“Everybody is tired now,” she said.
“We feel as though we have run out of fight.
“Lockdowns are exhausting for everyone, but seeing the rest of the town open up again is hard when your businesses are closed.
“For every extra week our businesses are closed, the financial impact for us and our staff is more devastating.
“We just keep falling further behind.”
In-Step Dance School co-owners Melissa Hall and Kimberly Barclay were equally frustrated, as “what was supposed to be a ‘circuit breaker’ ” turned into ongoing closure and restrictions.
“The inconsistencies in rules are difficult to comprehend,” Ms Hall said.
“Why is it okay for kids to go to school, play football and close-contact sport outside, go to a café or a restaurant, shopping … but they cannot attend a socially-distanced ballet class inside?”
Ms Hall said under the previous restrictions, theatres were able to open with 25 per cent capacity, yet dance studios could not open to prepare students for performances in said theatres.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
“Our dance school is attended by students from our local area — we know every single person that walks through our doors and do not service people outside of our local area.”
In-Step was closed for about six months last year, opening briefly for four weeks after the initial lockdown — but was then closed again until October.
“We were able to complete a small seven week term and a series of small end-of-year performances that were subject to strict density quotients and limited audiences, so therefore all of our normal revenue was greatly reduced,” Ms Barclay said.
“While we have had a good start to the year, the continued lockdowns are costing us thousands of dollars and knocking consumer confidence.”
Ms Barclay said the flow-on effect of continually being behind financially had worsened without JobKeeper support and with inadequate state government compensation.
“We cannot plan future programs and revenue for our business when we have the constant threat of being shut down hanging over our heads,” she said.
Ms Hall added while sporting organisations had been given support, the arts industry had been severely let down by government policy during the pandemic.
“Continued lockdowns are not sustainable for businesses that are impacted and closed down,” she said.
“The state government needs to plan and implement effective policies for managing outbreaks proportionally, ie not locking down an entire state for localised outbreaks in one or two areas.”
Leaps and Bounds’ Ms Trainor said the schools should be allowed to be able to continue to operate with COVIDSafe protocols they were now well versed in.
“Even if we were prevented from teaching adults, our kids should all be back,” she said.
“If they can play contact sport outside, they should be able to dance inside.
“What we do literally promotes social distancing.
“The first thing you do in a dance class is spread out and stand in your ‘spot’.”
Well-practiced in running lessons over Zoom, Leaps and Bounds was back this week doing “bits and pieces” online, however Ms Cumming reported a lot of their students were sick of Zoom sessions.
“So we’ve cut that right back with the 2021 lockdowns,” Ms Cumming said.
She said they had been trying outside rehearsals for a competition team, before restrictions were eased last night.
“We have two upcoming eisteddfods which are still currently going ahead as the theatres are open, so we are getting the kids together outdoors and trying something new,” she explained.
“It was cold [on Monday night] — mainly for the teachers standing still — but it’s better than nothing, and the kids love the social connection it provides.”
Ms Barclay agreed In-Step’s students had also thrived being back in the studio this year, after missing out on so much because of last year’s cancelled eisteddfods and exams.
She added online classes weren’t accessible to everyone, and was no substitute for face-to-face learning.
“While we provided some outside classes last year in October, access to an appropriate and safe dance space, given it’s winter, is just not possible,” she said.
“The mental health of our students — especially our teens — has taken a major hit last year and with the continued snap lockdowns this year.
“Our studio is their safe space and chance to see their friends and express themselves — when we are closed, these students don’t have that connection.”
Ms Trainor said Leaps and Bounds missed out on the February lockdown grant because it had an ineligible ASIC code attached to its ABN, but was hopeful to receive some funding this time around to cover expenses.
“Our staff are ineligible for the federal government payment of $500 per week as it doesn’t apply in regional Victoria, even though some businesses cannot operate,” she said.
The local businesses have turned to local politicians to help campaign for rules to be relaxed in Gippsland, where there are no current cases or exposure sites, meeting with Eastern Victoria MLC Melina Bath and Gippsland South MLA Danny O’Brien in Morwell on Monday.
Ms Bath said the businesses were being penalised with little explanation as to why, and there were “massive inconsistencies” in the government’s reasoning.
“This is Victoria’s fourth lockdown, and each time Labor shuts down our regional small businesses the rules seem to be different,” she said.
“The government says restrictions are made on scientific health advice, but it won’t release
this advice, or any scientific data used behind its restrictions decision-making.
“For example, it makes no sense that young people can attend school and mingle freely, and yet cannot attend a dance studio which has implemented COVIDSafe protocols.
“The government doesn’t seem to understand that throwing taxpayers’ money at these businesses is neither enough nor a solution – they should be allowed to operate.”
Mr O’Brien said with no cases in Gippsland since January and a “very low risk of spread from Melbourne”, it was difficult to understand why local businesses, including hospitality, could not operate as normal.
“It seems it’s fine that a union-led construction site can operate as normal, but our pubs, restaurants and cafés are limited to 50 patrons no matter how many separate rooms or how big their facility is,” he said.
“This lockdown mentality has to end for the benefit of our local businesses, as well as the mental health of all Gippslanders.”