I’ll confess, I am a firm disciple of Bunnings Warehouse. While I’m not a fan of its heavy political donations to the Coalition government or the complaints that some former employees have raised about its management practices, I am a certified adherent to the bizarre pseudo-religion that Aussies seem to have around this hardware store.
Wandering the aisles, inspecting strange and highly specific tools and gadgets draws out a world of endless fantasy in which I have the skills to design and build anything.
In all honesty, nothing could be further from the truth, but Bunnings, with its highly knowledgeable and endlessly patient staff, sell the dream well. Not to mention the sausage sizzle, which is a masterclass in marketing and has become a cultural touchstone
I, like so many others around Australia, am currently building out a van to tour Australia in once lockdown lifts and it’s been so helpful in maintaining my sanity during these difficult times. As such, I spend an embarrassing amount of time and money at Bunnings.
So even I had to wonder just why the hardware store is opening back up during lockdown in New South Wales. My business, and, given the items people seem to be purchasing there, almost everyone else’s, is certainly not what you would deem ‘essential’. During a pandemic, it hardly seems a good idea. (Side note: I’m fully vaccinated and always check in, wear a mask, and move quickly, but that’s incidental).
The answer lies in New South Wales’ vague and complex lockdown restrictions that leave most of us guessing as to what we can actually do.
Why Is Bunnings Opening Back Up?
Bunnings has long been the target of lockdown criticism as people question the necessity of the hardware store as cases soar.
Sure, you might have a desire to put up a new shelf, sort the backyard out, or, for that matter, build out a camper van, but is that trip really worth the risk of catching and spreading COVID? Probably not.
However, as case numbers in NSW climbed through the 1000s, Premier Gladys Berejiklian was forced to make the decision that so many other states have done without question and close the sacred retailer.
Bunnings closed its doors to everyone in Greater Sydney except tradies on August 23. Retail shoppers were encouraged to use collection or delivery services — although these quickly ballooned out to five to eight-day waiting times and the scenes on the ground were dire, as angry shoppers queued in their cars to return or pick up items.
However, from today, Monday, September 6, Bunnings has reopened its stores in Greater Sydney to retail customers except for those within the LGAs of concern.
The stores will be opening at normal times but Bunnings has said that it will “continue to encourage customers in Greater Sydney to use our contactless Drive & Collect service and delivery options for non-urgent items”.
Bunnings Managing Director Mike Schneider explained that the decision was due to the acceleration of the vaccine rollout in Sydney, with NSW now having reached over 70% single-dose vaccinations in the over 16 population.
“The acceleration of the vaccine rollout and the increase in opportunities for our team to get vaccinated has given us the confidence to re-open our stores in Greater Sydney, with strong COVID-safe protocols in place, including a one per 10-metre density limit applied,” he said.
“I’m incredibly proud of our team in Sydney who have come forward in large numbers to get vaccinated.
“We’re also very grateful to the NSW Government for all their efforts accelerating the vaccine rollout, granting access to authorised workers and for the expansion of vaccine eligibility to younger members of the community.”
Why Is Bunnings Open?
New South Wales has progressively tightened their restrictions as the Delta outbreak has worn on and, as such, it is now just ‘essential’ services that are allowed to remain open.
“To try and define essential work is really very challenging,” Health Minister Brad Hazzard has said.
“An employer and their employee would know whether the worker is really essential.”
This is in spite of the fact that Victoria was able to do so, in a three-page document, just hours after announcing their recent lockdown (no, not this one, the other one).
“What needs to be done is common sense,” Hazzard said, again putting the onus on the individual, not the government, to create and adhere to the rules.
One person’s ‘essential’ trip is another person’s frivolous jaunt through the aisles.
how does every part of Australia's COVID response somehow revolve around Bunnings
— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) August 8, 2021
It’s perhaps not the store itself that people have an issue with but rather the nonchalant way in which people are allowed to visit the store. Bunnings does sell a broad range of things, not all of which are essential items. They sell plungers and light bulbs but also pot plants and barbecues.
Ultimately, any store that can be reasonably classified as selling items that people can’t go without has been allowed to remain open, even if a large portion of their stock can wait until after the lockdown.
Will Bunnings Close Again?
Unlikely, but the answer is a little more complex than it seems.
Berejiklian, and most of the Liberal Party, are moving away from hard lockdowns to deal with COVID outbreaks as they clearly haven’t been able to eliminate the virus with this strategy in New South Wales.
With an election looming, shifting the focus away from policy failures to policy successes like the vaccine rollout and an emphasis on greater freedoms is going to be key.
At her press conference on August 4, Berejiklian refused to answer a question on why exactly Bunnings was on the “critical” list of stores.
Instead, she cut the journalist off and moved on — suspicious, to say the least, given the money her party receives from Wesfarmers, Bunnings owner — but Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant explained that the risk of transmission at large retail outlets like supermarkets and hardware stores was low.
Andrew Clennell; why is Bunnings closed in QLD but not in NSW?
Gladys: Next question!
Not good enough
— Carole Lee (@Redcar51) August 4, 2021
“The only time we are tending to see transmission in shops is when the staff themselves infect each other,” she said.
Sydney’s COVID-19 numbers are going up because of workplace and household transmissions, not hardware stores. The same argument could be applied to the debate around why the Eastern Beaches are full when Western Sydney has had the army sent in.
It looks and feels classist — and this is certainly a big part of it — but there’s just not that much justification for shutting these places down and the outrage, both internal and external, has proven to be more than the NSW government — the “gold standard” government of anti-lockdowns — is willing to bear.
That being said, Bunnings stores have been exposure sites of COVID-19, however there has yet to be a case of transmission to another customer. Chant has explained that these stores don’t generally see transmission in part because of the size but also because of the precautions that are being taken.
regardless of whether you think bunnings should be open, is it *really* in the public interest for our public debate to be entirely about bunnings, rather than:
* where are the cases
* what can be done to reduce mixing in those settings
— casey briggs (@CaseyBriggs) August 4, 2021
Mask wearing, hand sanitising, and keeping distance have stopped the virus from spreading further in places where it could have done, like Bunnings. If this changed, it’s likely we would see transmissions and these stores would justifiably be shut down again.
Unless transmissions in Bunnings stories skyrocket — and no promises there — then Bunnings will remain open. It’s both a test and a demonstration that NSW can handle aspects of normal life with the virus as we look forward to major reopenings.