Why thousands will flock to the derby today, but won’t set foot in a restaurant

Why thousands will flock to the derby today, but won’t set foot in a restaurant

The lingering psychological impact of restrictions and public health messaging may explain why Perth’s CBD is at times near-empty, while a footy stadium can attract huge crowds, a social scientist says.

As Western Australia recorded all-time highs of COVID-19 cases over the past week, activity in Perth’s malls and hospitality venues continue to fall way short of pre-pandemic levels.  

In a stark contrast, big crowds are expected for tonight’s AFL Western Derby, with eased restrictions allowing for tens of thousands to attend.

Perth restaurant manager Saral Chana said business had dropped about 40 per cent since the borders opened last month.

“Because more people [test] positive, the case numbers get high, and then not many people come,” she said.

Restaurant manager Saral Chana says business has dropped by almost half.(ABC News: Cason Ho)

Ms Chana said the business was unrecognisable when compared to how things were before the pandemic.

“It was completely different. Back then, we are so busy and we have people lined up,” she said.

“Now there’s more takeaway. And Uber Eats as well.”

A white plastic bag on a restaurant counter.
Takeaway and home delivery services have grown since the start of the pandemic.(ABC News: Cason Ho)

‘It’s an emotive thing’: Social scientist

Despite easing restrictions and a push for “living with COVID” in WA, the trend of choosing takeaway over dining in might remain.

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Relaxed COVID-19 rules are now in force in Western Australia

University of NSW infectious disease social scientist Holly Seale said our underlying thought process was influenced by many factors and was often not as logical as we hoped.

“It’s an emotive thing. Something we don’t necessarily think a huge amount about,” she said.

Associate Professor Holly Seale
Holly Seale says people may view attending football matches less risky than some other activities.(Supplied)

“There’s a lot of complexity about why people are choosing one event over another.”

‘A spectrum of risky locations’

One contributing factor is how stringent restrictions for indoor settings and constant public health messaging have embedded into our psychology, according to Professor Seale.

“The messages that have been drilled into us have been that there is a spectrum of risky locations. They’ve been encouraging people to do things outdoors,” she said.

“People are absorbing all of these messages and seeing what people are doing in their surroundings.”

Nat Fyfe walks onto an AFL field, leading his teammates
Football fans are expected to be out in force for this weekend’s Western Derby.(AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

Professor Seale said we might perceive sporting events as less risky due to being associated with the outdoors.

“In the person’s mind they are sitting outside to see the sports match,” she said.

“They perhaps forget about what else is involved, including going inside to purchase food and alcohol.”

People want what they have ‘missed out on’

While WA remained relatively free of COVID for much of the pandemic, many large events were cancelled either due to restrictions or logistics.

Professor Seale said while retail and hospitality businesses were also decimated, people were still able to access them with reduced capacities and other restrictions.

Hundreds of football fans walk down stairs and out of Perth Stadium lit up blue and red at night.
People want access to what they have been missing out on, Professor Seale says.(ABC News: James Carmody)

“Cafes have remained somewhat open during COVID, whereas the opportunity to go to these larger events has been reduced,” she said.

“People are looking for the activities they used to frequent and have missed out on.”

Footy fever outweighs fears

Curtin University Professor of health psychology Barba Mullan said stricter measures in hospitality venues may act as a lingering deterrent.

“In restaurants it’s a little bit more obvious that you’re still going through these restrictions. There’s also that fear,” she said.

Empty seats in a restaurant with dim lighting.
Professor Mullan says hospitality venue restrictions could be hindering a return to indoor dining.(ABC News: Cason Ho)

“It’s a combination of how vulnerable you think you are, how much you want to do something, and how easy it is based on the regulations.”

Professor Mullan said the urge for many West Australians to watch the footy in person outweighed their fear of infection, but it’s unlikely for other old habits to bounce back just as quickly.

A picture of empty cafe tables and chairs in a Perth CBD laneway.
Businesses in the CBD continue to struggle.(ABC News: Andrew O’Connor)

“We’re never going back to 2019, even if this pandemic goes away,” she said.

“At the moment many of us are quite happy to sit with our delivery app.”

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