French Pickers Alicia Ferrant 21, Jordan Duboust 25, Steevy Baillon 22 and Alicia Pennel 24 working at Quebec Citrus at Mundubbera in 2018. Photo: File
French Pickers Alicia Ferrant 21, Jordan Duboust 25, Steevy Baillon 22 and Alicia Pennel 24 working at Quebec Citrus at Mundubbera in 2018. Photo: File

COVID-19 fears arrive with unprecedented backpacker influx

THERE'S an increasing concern in Gayndah and Mundubbera that unprecedented numbers of newly arrived backpackers in the region could cause a COVID-19 outbreak.

Each year, Gayndah and Mundubbera become meccas for international farm labourers wanting to complete their 88 days of rural work to secure their second visa.

Real estate agencies and camping grounds however are now implementing distancing measures, or turning away travellers due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Real estate agent Jo Dowling said she had up to 40 people on the Gayndah Real Estate waiting list.

"I've never had a waiting list that long," Mrs Dowling said.

"I'm just wondering now why there's such a backlog, is it because they want houses rather than camping, or if there are more backpackers in the town?"

The agency already has 36 approved backpackers in houses, and keen renters continue to call seeking accommodation.

Mrs Dowling is worried about how the backpackers are meant to isolate if they're living in close quarters with one another.

 

Gayndah Real Estate agent Joanne Dowling. Photo: File
Gayndah Real Estate agent Joanne Dowling. Photo: File

"When we welcome them to the town, we're asking them to self-isolate for 14 days," she said.

"Where are they going to go?

"They're being told that if you're staying in town with other people, they're meant to isolate and use the other bathroom in their household.

"Not many of our rental houses have more than one bathroom, at least the ones the backpackers have."

Suggestions have been made to use the showgrounds in Gayndah and Mundubbera as dedicated isolation zones for incoming travellers.

Brisbane could be doing something similar, as it plans to turn the RNA Showgrounds into an emergency COVID-19 hospital, if required.

 

Backpackers hit the trees when the fruit is at its best. Photo: File
Backpackers hit the trees when the fruit is at its best. Photo: File

Former Gayndah mayor Peter Huth runs a camping ground on the outskirts of Gayndah, but is not accepting any new campers at the moment.

"I've had to turn a lot of people away, and I apologise for that, but at the moment we're working diligently to keep everyone safe," Mr Huth said.

"We're keeping people in their own groups, and not allowing visitors into the campsite.

"Everyone at the camp is working together to try and avoid a disaster."

Mr Huth believes he's seen quite a large number of Australian workers arriving in the region looking for work, as well as overseas workers.

"There's as many here at this time than I've ever seen before," he said.

"It's in everyone's best interest however to work together in what we can, and can't do."

Picky Packers Hostel in Mundubbera has also closed its doors to new arrivals, in an effort to keep their 40 residents safe.

 

PACKED: Picky Packers in Mundubbera with a full house in 2019. Photo: File
PACKED: Picky Packers in Mundubbera with a full house in 2019. Photo: File

Riverview Caravan Park in Gayndah is at 50 per cent capacity in the camping area.

Owner Stacy Banks said they have had 76 travellers in the first park, and the business was ready to open the second park to new arrivals.

"Most of the people have been here for two weeks in Gayndah by this Friday," Mrs Banks said.

"For a lot of them it's the second season they're having in Gayndah, so they've been in the country for some time."

While many national parks and camping grounds have closed, Riverview has been able to stay open since it's a necessity to accommodate workers for the fruit season, Mrs Banks said.

The caravan park has already been visited by North Burnett Regional Council staff and other disaster management groups, and has been consulted on the particulars of dealing with coronavirus.

"Now when everybody arrives we are adhering to a guideline, and when we open the second park, the new campers won't be able to cross over," Mrs Banks said.

"It's going to be cut off, just to keep everyone safe."

 

Kirsten Vivian picks Gayndah's world-class citrus. Photo: File
Kirsten Vivian picks Gayndah's world-class citrus. Photo: File

When asked how the council was going to respond to the growing concern regarding backpackers and the region's citrus season, Mayor Rachel Chambers said they had been consulting several key organisations.

"Council is working closely with Queensland Health, the citrus industry, and accommodation sectors to consolidate regional data in order to make the best decisions possible," Cr Chambers said.

"We are also working closely with QPS, QFES, Department of Housing and Public Works, and the Federal Government to ensure public health for all, and to ensure our citrus industry remains fully operational over the citrus season."

As of March 31, there are currently 18 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Wide Bay.



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