How the iconic Bondi beach became a coronavirus hotspot

Bondi is one of NSW’s most famous destinations, drawing 2.6 million visitors a year. Has its popularity made it vulnerable to Covid-19 ?
A block from Bondi Beach six female travellers, all aged between 22 and 31, share a two-bedroom flat, each paying $200 a week in rent.

PHOTOS: The World's Sexiest Beaches | Bondi beach, Beaches in the ...

They came to Australia, and settled in Bondi, for the work opportunities, the sun and the freedom.

Last week, two of the women tested positive for Covid-19.

The Sydney beach suburb draws 2.6 million visitors each year, according to Destination New South Wales. It’s a place of contrasts. Sparkling natural bounty and dense urban living. Billionaires and backpackers. Instagrammed bodies and old-timers’ swimming clubs. A place obsessed with health and beauty but now, one of Australia’s Covid-19 hotspots.

Bondi, part of Waverley council area, has taken a heavy hit from the coronavirus, the local council’s 159 cases as of Friday (101 of them in Bondi alone) knocking the sunshine out of the surfside playground.

This week, in response to Waverley’s newfound status as home to both the highest number of Covid-19 cases and the highest number of locally transmitted cases in the state, the government opened a local pop-up testing clinic.

While the advice during the global coronavirus pandemic is to stay home, the reality for some, especially in a place like Bondi, is that crowded living conditions make physical distancing difficult, even for the most prudent.

“I couldn’t believe I was negative, I slept in the same room as two positive girls,” says one of the Argentinian housemates who was given the all-clear, who did not want to be named. “I was staying home, worrying about the virus outside, but it was in my own place.”

Unsure where to turn, she appealed to the authorities for help and her infected housemates – one of whom is suspected to have caught the virus in the house – were moved into quarantine in hotels, paid for by the government.

For the others, a sense of gratitude has settled on the flat: they and their sick housemates are safe and isolated, friends are helping with food deliveries and a neighbour has lent them exercise equipment. She has heard of worse, including newly jobless, homeless travellers who cannot get to their home countries, and infected members of shared houses who have stayed put.

They’re like many temporary working visa holders who continue to share cramped homes, some of 12 to 15 people, across the suburb. Since 20 March, hostels, meanwhile, have had to comply with new distancing rules of one person every 4 sq metres. At Noah’s Backpackers, just along from James Packer’s erstwhile beach house, every room, including six-bed dormitories, were made single occupancy.

People see you walk [out of the hostel] and they shout at you and say [Bondi’s] an epicentre of disease.Dylan Tenbrink

The landmark building has a view down on to the Bondi Beach that is usually alive with crowded surf and its famous lifeguards. On 21 March, the beach was closed, its entrances hastily fenced off. With no surfers and sunbathers, Bondi Beach has never looked so bare. Now in the spotlight as the centre of Australia’s coronavirus outbreak, the suburb has never felt quite so exposed.

The scene is a far cry from images just over two weeks ago, when crowds from well beyond Sydney’s east took to the sand on a 36C day, flouting social distancing rules and the new 500-person limit on outdoor gatherings. A hot Friday with family-friendly surf is what Bondi does best – but by the next afternoon and in the glare of global media, police were sweeping the beach of sunbathers, forbidding even surfers to enter the water. For the first time, the beach known around the world as an icon of Australia’s natural beauty and symbol of our love of the sea and sun is now associated with something far less glamorous.

When New South Wales chief health Officer Dr Kerry Chant singled out backpackers and their potential to infect the community when outlining the response, she directed public focus towards Bondi’s reputation as a destination for travellers, already in the headlines because of a coronavirus cluster traced to a tropical-themed party at a popular Bondi beachfront bar.

From Noah’s Backpackers, the view is bleak. A few weeks ago, the hostel was bustling with 266 guests. Now, it’s desolate, with manager Dylan Tenbrink closing its doors last Wednesday, saying it was “impossible” to stay open under the new regulations around social distancing as well as media scrutiny. Unfounded rumours of a positive case of the virus in the hostel were unfairly targeting backpackers and the result was fear among both visitors and the community, he says.

“Bondi’s one of the greatest suburbs in the entire world. There’s opportunity, it’s safe, there’s freedom for everybody,” Tenbrink told Guardian Australia in the days before the hostel shut. “Now, people see you walk [out of the hostel] and they shout at you and say it’s an epicentre of disease.”

With a young, international demographic and thousands of daily visitors, Bondi’s infection rate comes as little surprise to local photographer and Aquabumps gallery owner, Eugene Tan. He has photographed Bondi Beach at daybreak for the last 21 years, and the daily surf photos are known worldwide.

“Bondi’s a brand, everybody knows it. You come to Sydney, you come to Bondi. It’s a welcoming place,” he says. It’s that spirit that might have landed Bondi in the situation it’s in today.

“The police cleared the beach on Saturday and then all the bars filled up. It’s a melting pot, which I love, but Bondi gets out of hand easily – we have a lot of travellers and they have a carefree attitude.”

But to point to the backpacker community alone as responsible for local infection rates is to miss the reality of Bondi’s broader community.

The suburb has long been home to professionals and young families from all over the world and less than half of its population is born in Australia, with many residents from Europe, South Africa, America and Brazil. At a local childcare centre where a parent tested positive for the virus, children speak Italian, French, German, Swedish, Hungarian, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and Italian. Long-haul travel, responsible for bringing the vast majority of Covid-19 infections into Australia but also for connecting expats with their families, is as much a way of life as the beach.

The Waverley mayor, Paula Masselos, says it is the kindness of the community and its adaptability that stands it in good stead for the future. “We are all in this together.”

Brand Bondi, after all, reaches well beyond its bay and, to Tan, its pull is stronger than ever. He has been receiving messages from people all over the world telling him how images of Bondi are keeping them sane during lockdown.

“Without the beach,” he says, “you feel a bit lost.”