For the first time in a long time, there are plenty of people out on Melbourne streets as the sun rises over the city.
Just hours after lockdown lifted, cafe workers are out in the cool morning air, dragging chairs and tables out the front of the stores, anticipating hordes of brunch-starved customers.
One cafe goer, James Gearman, knows exactly how he wants to spend his first 24 hours of freedom. “The plan is to drink all day,” he says, laughing.
But before he can truly start the celebrations, he has ventured out to the Journeyman cafe on Chapel Street to right a significant wrong.
“I can’t cook eggs,” he says, gesturing to his half-finished breakfast. “So this is the first egg I’ve had in lockdown. It is a relief – I just think it’s good for everyone.”
Across the table sits George, who does not wish to give his last name. He says he has taken the day off work to kickstart his new Covid-normal lifestyle.
“Today I’m just going to visit people, catch up,” he says. “Drink, eat, be merry, have fun.
“We were saying as soon as we woke up how nice it felt seeing people running, going past all the cafes where people were going in. Everyone’s just happy. Everyone’s positive, everyone’s got a smile on their face.”
By 8am even the notoriously mercurial Melbourne weather seems to be getting in on the celebrations, the end of lockdown coming just as the first hints of summer creep into the air.
“It’s a nice day and it just feels like Christmas, you know? Everyone is really festive,” says Sophie McCann, sitting a few tables down. “It just feels right.”
Many were counting down the minutes until lockdown lifted but for McCann and her partner, Ed Von Moger, Victoria’s freedom day has come as a bit of a surprise.
“We didn’t know that places were open now,” she says. “I said, ‘Oh, let’s go get a coffee’ and when we got here we realised, ‘Oh, we can sit down.’ I guess there will be a lot of surprises.”
While thousands across the city are sitting back and basking in the sun while their breakfasts are cooked, it’s a different story behind the counter.
With only a week’s notice before the reopening, many cafes owners are delighted, yet struggling, finding themselves short-staffed as lines stretch out the door.
By 9am, Chez Mademoiselle, a small cafe on Greville Street in Prahran, is already up to docket number 135.
“That’s at least 200 coffees … But you know what, you just have to make it happen,” its manager, Kevin Tribet, says with a nervous laugh.
“We are very happy to reopen but, you know, finding out on Sunday and reopening on Friday doesn’t give you much time to find staff and everything. But you have to do what you have to do to keep your business alive.”
Across the road at the Kings Domain Barber Shop, lockdown locks are falling thick and fast, with the shop booked out every day for the next month.
“I’ve got five barbers … all the barbers will do 20 haircuts a day, so we’re opening from 9am till 8pm, Monday to Saturday, right up until Melbourne Cup,” says the owner, Joe Kurdyla. “It’s gonna be busy …
“So far everyone who’s come in is just so excited to see us, so excited to get their hair cut. I think, you know, a few people will probably be a little bit on edge, but we’ll get used to it. We’ll get back to normal.”
Just after 9am the Victorian health department reports 2,189 locally acquired Covid cases and a grim new record of 16 deaths. While the state’s new coronavirus strategy focuses more on vaccination rates than infections, many are still nervous about what conditions in the revived city will be like.
“I think people are a little bit stressed,” says Paul Barfett who, for the first time in months, is able to sit down at a cafe during his break from working at a nearby hospital.
“I think finishing this lockdown might help relieve some of that thought. Give a little bit of balance.
“Within the health sector people have been so focused on managing the Covid issues and there wasn’t anything to offset that. Now just being able to sit down at a cafe or go to dinner and catch up with friends, it just gives people a bit of happiness.”
One table over, friends Linda Richardson, Zoe Bohlsen and Sophie Corazza say they are still relaxing into their newfound freedoms.
“It was weird to get on a full tram,” Richardson says. “Everyone was safe, everyone was wearing masks, but that was a weird experience.”
Despite bars, pubs and clubs gearing up for a big Friday night, Corazza says she isn’t quite ready for that yet.
“I haven’t got that far,” she says, laughing. “We’ll slowly, slowly socialise. Build the skills back up. One step at a time.”