Looking at the city through COVID eyes

By Rhonda Dredge

As the city clocked up 200 days of lockdown in August, many CBD locals have been forced to adapt their livelihoods and professions to survive the pandemic. 

Peter Michael, who sadly announced the closure of his camera business in January, is pleased to have landlord duties to fulfill.

And former bar fly and publisher Michelle Matthews is now in the thick of things working in a quarantine hotel. 

The professions of these two highflyers will probably never look the same after the pandemic but they’re willing to talk openly about the changes to their lives.

Peter was in town to offer support to his tenant who runs a container bar creatively squeezed into the car park behind Michaels Camera Store. 

“It’s free rent,” Peter told him, as they met for a coffee and a chat in the lane. 

Bar owners are playing a waiting game and local residents such as Michelle who moved into the CBD for the nightlife have also had to find other pursuits. 

During last year’s 112-day lockdown, the Instagram poster kept abreast of development in the city and tracked the refurbishment of five new hotels as projects came to fruition.

“There’s the Hilton, Next, Little Queen, QT and Crossley, all launched and opened,” she said.

Michelle used to publish a bar and restaurant guide so when the Society restaurant opened in July she was quick off the mark, meeting a friend on a Tuesday night and paying $55 for their top cocktail. 

But this was a rare night out on the town. Michelle hasn’t felt like drinking much since working in a quarantine hotel and is more likely to be found queuing up for a COVID test than a martini. She has a test every day.

“I feel privileged to have a job outside,” she told CBD News about her admin job in Docklands. “I can go and be with people. This is something I can do fully.”

She now has a more layered view of the CBD as she does her daily walks, pleased when walkers are not outnumbered two to one by those in high-vis and picking up signs of the pandemic such as the message a loved one has left on a wall outside the Stamford – another quarantine hotel. 

Neither Michelle nor Peter are abandoning the city they love. They are just looking at it through new eyes.

Peter’s great grandfather built the famous Michael Buildings, on the corner of Elizabeth and Lonsdale streets in 1916, and it used to house a range of businesses so “we’re going back to being landlords” he said about the decision to lease out the property. 

He admitted that a combination of COVID and staff issues prompted him to take early retirement after working at the camera store since 1966. He opted for exercise over hard slog for nothing.

“It was a very hard decision after such a heritage,” he said. “COVID made me pause and reflect. I’ve got bread on the table and a roof over my head. I’m a very good ultra-walker.” 

His first walk from Caulfield to Broadmeadows took 12 hours, his longest walk from Caulfield to Portsea then back to Rye, 26 hours. 

While the CBD will be losing the magic of the camera store, along with its photographic museum, it made sense at a personal level for Peter to sell off the stock.

He said that Michaels was “a sophisticated multi-arm business” and it was too complicated to just step back from. At least the Michael name in photography will carry on with his son’s business in St Kilda. 

And Michelle is also philosophical about the changes to her life. When she worked for Ansett her perks were free flights. In her current job the perk was a free vaccination in February •

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