This is weird. And sad. And surreal. It's not Canberra.
The organisers of the National Folk Festival should be getting ready for next weekend's festival at Exhibition Park.
Floriade head gardener Andrew Forster should be marshalling his apprentices to start planting bulbs and annuals in Commonwealth Park in time for the spring festival.
Schoolkids should be teeming around the national institutions, squeezing in the last of their rite-of-passage excursions to the capital before the Easter holidays.
Young people should be settling on their outfits for Groovin the Moo at EPIC on Anzac Day.
But everything has been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the $2.5 billion tourism sector, like the rest of the ACT, has been left reeling.
It's costing dollars, livelihoods and a sense of certainty.
Exhibition Park, instead of turning to a riot of colour, music and bonhomie at the Folk Festival over the Easter long weekend, is instead the site of a sombre line of vehicles, queuing up for the drive-through coronavirus testing station.
Could the contrast be any more stark?
When will this end?
After the shock of the Floriade cancellation this week, an event still seemingly so far away - it wasn't due to open until September 12 - thoughts went even as far as to whether Summernats, in January, would go ahead.
Summernats owner Andy Lopez this week was as confident as he could be that the iconic car festival would take place, although he says his other events have been affected.
Red Centre NATS in September is "under discussion", Motorex in Melbourne has been moved from May to November and the first Rockynats, due to take place in Rockhampton in winter, has been moved to April next year.
So far, Summernats, which attracts 100,000 people - 80 per cent from interstate - and generates about $30 million for the Canberra economy, is not shifting from its January 7 opening date.
"With Floriade, a lot of preparation is needed. Our event in January, we build that in December. People are using this isolation time to do what they love doing, building and working on their cars," he said.
By January, Mr Lopez said people will be busting to get out and celebrate.
"We'd be really proud to be a big start to a new era of tourism in the ACT, to be a full stop, an exclamation mark to everything. It'd be a chance for people to shake off 2020 and kick it to the kerb," he said.
But for now, Mr Lopez understands people in tourism and events are hurting and his "heart goes out to them".
Chief Minister Andrew Barr, also the territory's Tourism Minister, this week signalled just how important the sector is to the ACT and just how far the government would go to protect it, even raising the prospect of taking a stake in tourist attractions, such as the National Zoo and Aquarium, to keep them afloat.
Tourism is a massive contributor to the ACT, often fuelled by very small businesses with big dreams. Tourism and hospitality accounts for 19,300 jobs in the ACT. There are almost 4000 tourism and hospitality businesses in the capital, 73 per cent of which have fewer than four employees. International and domestic tourists, according to the latest figures, spend a massive $2.56 billion each year in the territory.
Mr Barr, who this week announced Floriade would be cancelled for the first time in its 32-year history as there was no way he could allow 500,000 people in Commonwealth Park in September, said there may be more pain in store for the sector.
"There is a risk that [other] major events will have to be cancelled," he said.
"We will make decisions about other ACT government-run events when the time comes. At this stage, our major events for this year, which include Floriade and NightFest, and our planned winter festival, have been impacted. Any changes to events run by third parties, such as Summernats and Groovin the Moo, are being determined by the organisers of those events."
While tourism businesses have taken up coronavirus support initiatives announced by the ACT and federal governments, Mr Barr said special support for the tourism sector was on the cards.
"The tourism and hospitality sector is vital to Canberra's economy. This is something both the federal and ACT governments are looking to support," he said.
"We know this sector has been hugely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of the measures announced to date will be taken up by employers and employees in this sector.
"We are also working one-on-one with some of our tourism operators to help them stay viable during the hibernation period."
[An interesting sidepoint is that, just up the Federal Highway in Sutton, NSW, the popular Tulip Top Gardens says it will be opening to the public in September.
"With acres of land here at Tulip Top, physical distancing is not an issue for three family members who tend to the gardening everyday," the business posted.
"We are optimistic that everyone's efforts to flatten the curve will hopefully see the lift of physical distancing requirements by spring. It's business as usual for us."]
A key part of the ACT tourism industry which often flies under the radar is the school excursion sector, which contributes $140 million each year to the local economy (Floriade, by contrast, generates $40 million, and the Folk Festival $4 million).
Garry Watson is the project leader for the National Capital Educational Tourism Project, a mouthful of a title for an organisation that essentially aims to encourage as many school children to visit Canberra as possible.
Mr Watson said last year set a record for school excursions to Canberra, with more than 170,000 children visiting. They arrived in coaches, backpacks on and wide-eyed as they visited everything from Parliament House to Cockington Green to the Glassworks.
Each person on a school excursion represents about $600 being injected into the Canberra economy, Mr Watson says. Schools must think ahead, so excursions are booked out until September, 2021. May is busy, usually attracting 17,000 children and their teachers, back from the school holidays and able to see Parliament sitting. August and September are the busiest months, attracting about 25,000 people on school excursions to Canberra.
Now, there are none. The 20 accommodation outlets that house the children and teachers during their stay in Canberra are empty. Places such as the YMCA's Bush Capital Lodge in O'Connor, and Leumeah Lodge in Nicholls, and the still-shiny-new Canberra Park next to EPIC, which opened only in early 2017 specifically to cater for the group accommodation market.
Mr Watson said about 70 per cent of schools use a tour operator to organise their excursions, so they, too, have taken a hit, not just financially but also emotionally, with many having long-term relationship with those schools.
And, of course, the national attractions, closed in any case due to the coronavirus, are also missing out on that school excursion business.
Mr Watson said trying to get schools who had missed out on their excursions back on the packed program would take a lot of dexterity. It won't be simple.
"It's too significant an industry to collapse, but it won't bounce back easily, because of its myriad working parts," he said.
"I've been doing this for 20 years and I thought I'd seen everything."
National Folk Festival managing director Helen Roben is also feeling like she's never felt before in the lead-up to Easter. She and her team should have been, from Monday, setting up the festival at EPIC for its opening day on Thursday. About 40,000 people, patrons and performers should have been enjoying it. But they won't be there, and nor will they be generating the estimated $4 million boost to the economy.
"It feels very bizarre," Ms Roben said.
She and her team are now working on taking the festival online, linking to performers' websites, and hoping fans will log on and still buy their music and other merchandise.
She is hopeful the festival will return in 2021 - "we can organise a festival in less than six months" - but nothing is certain.
But she is not about to throw in the towel.
"It's all about hope right now," she said.
So, when will we be returned to normal, able to enjoy our beautiful city again?
"The ACT's Chief Health Officer has been clear that there is no simple fix. Either a vaccine is developed, or enough people catch COVID-19 and become immune," Mr Barr said.
"We know that any measures that are put in place will have to stay in place for at least six months.
"That is why we are working carefully and calmly to put in place any measures that are necessary to flatten the curve, protect the community's health and prevent our health system from being overwhelmed."
When asked how to convince people who think the lockdown strategy is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, Mr Barr is adamant the ACT is doing the right thing.
"I think people appreciate the seriousness of this once in a century health and economic crisis. They don't need convincing," he said.
" The public health and safety of Canberrans is the ACT Government's priority. A public health emergency has been declared in the ACT in response to the global pandemic of COVID-19; the first time a public health emergency has been declared in the ACT.mThis decision is consistent with the response of other jurisdictions to manage and contain COVID-19 in Australia.
"We believe people are aware of the seriousness of this situation, particularly when you see what is happening in other parts of the world, like the US and Italy.
"The priority is to protect public health and ensure our health services are not overwhelmed. To do this, the ACT Government is following the directions from National Cabinet, and aligning with NSW wherever possible on the shutting down of non-essential services to protect public health.
"We know this is having a huge impact on sectors of our community, but if we don't flatten the curve, more people will die. The measures we are taking are necessary and based on national consensus and expert advice. The ACT Government will continue to work to support families and businesses that are impacted by COVID-19."
On Friday morning, Floriade head gardener Andrew Forster wandered through a desolate Commonwealth Park. He has been head gardener there since 1997. He hasn't missed a Floriade in those 23 years.
"I was sort of expecting it," he said of Floriade's cancellation. "It's about the safety of everyone."
The bulbs and annuals have already been ordered. They will probably be planted elsewhere around the city. Mr Forster and his team of apprentices will keep busy on other work. Mr Forster, as ever, is the eternal sunny presence, even without Floriade to look forward to.
"It'll be different, but I'll be able to get into sporting activities and do some more sailing," he said.
Support for tourism and small business in the ACT
The ACT government has announced a number of measures to support local business and industry, including the tourism and hospitality sector. These include:
- Waivers to licensed and off-premises-licensed venues for their business registration costs
- Additional support to the community clubs sector and Canberra Casino
- Payroll tax waivers and deferrals
- Electricity rebates
- Commercial tenancy relief
- $1 million in support for the arts community, including grants worth a total of $500,000 to support the sustainability of arts practice over the next six to nine months and $500,000 to enable arts facilities to waive fees for sub-licensees for six months.
The Canberra Business Advice and Support Service is offering business owners up to four hours of free, tailored advice and access to online business development resources. Phone 6297 3121 to make a booking.
Businesses can call the Access Canberra Business Liaison Line, 6205 0900, for advice about what support is available. You can also click here to find the information online.