As the end of 2020 approached, Wollongong events promoter Ben Tillman was feeling optimistic.
After a horror year, when he estimates his thriving Illawarra music business Yours and Owls had to cancel more than 500 events - it seemed like things were getting back to normal.
"October and November did start to feel like we were getting back to a sense of normality," he said, noting restrictions on events had started to ease.
So when he got the chance to host a New Year's Eve party - a final farewell to the annus horribilis - he jumped.
"We got the phone call from the North Gong asking us to throw an outdoor event for 1500 to 2000 people, and we were going to be allowed to be standing, there could be a dance floor - so we were really looking forward to it," he said. "It was busy, we had to book a little mini festival in about a week, but we pretty much sold out straight away - so obviously everyone else was looking forward to it as well."
But in the fortnight leading up to Christmas, everything changed again.
In mid-December cases started appearing in Avalon, and by the weekend before Christmas, the state had brought in new restrictions - not only for the Northern Beaches, but for all of "Greater Sydney" which included Wollongong for the first time.
Household gatherings were limited, tighter caps were re-introduced for indoor venues and dance floors were banned. Days before the eve of 2021, the numbers for big outdoor events were cut too.
"We held on to the last minute for New Years, I guess in the delusional hope that it might be possible," Mr Tillman said.
On December 28, though, they announced the event would be cancelled.
"To say we are gutted is a massive understatement," the announcement read. "We have been working tirelessly to hopefully bring you something to cap off this s--t show of a year, but 2020 is adamant that it wants the spotlight until the very end."
Mr Tillman said his team briefly considered still going ahead, with a stripped-back, dance floor-free event, but decided it wasn't worth it.
"We had sold 1500 tickets, and the new rules meant we couldn't run the New Year's Eve we'd been planning, in the way we were going to do," he said. "So that decision was made for us in some ways."
"But, also when you're in the industry that's been hit the hardest, we're also the most sensitive to the idea that 'oh, something's looking like it's potentially going to be a risk, and let's pull the event' because the sooner we can be done with [coronavirus] the sooner we can get back to normality."
Like Mr Tillman, The Illawarra hotel's Ryan Aitchison was optimistic about the end of 2020 when he planned his New Year celebration, which gave first dibs to the region's first responders.
"We wanted to end the year really positively, and we put out a ticket allocation to all the first responders because we wanted to make our New Year's party about them," he said. "That was the thing that hurt the worst when we cancelled, having to go around and tell them that it was off - but as you would expect, they were the most understanding."
Mr Aitchison said he could have run a New Year's Eve party at the Illawarra within the rules, but local cases emerging and half-day lines of people getting tested creating gridlock in the Wollongong CBD in the lead up to December 31, he didn't feel it would be responsible.
"For us, the things that changed in the regulation didn't affect the structural things we had in place for the event itself, but we just saw it as being too big a risk to carry," he said.
"Even though the Premier didn't actually force us to pull the pin, we just decided for the risk involved that we'd rather lock it down and not bring a big group of people together at that time.
"It was tough - we lost tens of thousands of dollars. You see all that ticket revenue in the bank and think wow, this will really help after the year we've had, so to have to press the button and shoot it all back was a difficult pill to swallow."
Despite this, Mr Aitchison is proud of his decision, as he believes it's up to local operators to show leadership when it comes to public messages around coronavirus.
"We had these big local venues, who basically decided to take the hit to support the broader community to make sure there wasn't the possibility of these places becoming a super spreading event," he said.
"The leadership does create a trickledown effect, and I've just been so proud of how Wollongong has dealt with this latest scare."
Mr Tillman agrees.
"One part of it is that you don't want to be the reason that it's spread or why a cluster has happened," he said. "But it's also about being on the front foot to just educate everyone. We are those public facing business, with big [online] followings, and people do listen to us - so it's setting an example, because by showing that we're sacrificing all this stuff it makes it easier to say 'can you all just wear a mask when you go to the supermarket?'."
Both agree that it's up to them - as people who live and work locally - to make these hard decisions, even as they watched national hotel operators still run events and the cricket test go ahead at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
"You've got to find your Zen, because it's difficult when you're turning away literally tens of thousands of dollars of revenue and people can just go up the road and spend their money at someone's venue who didn't really care about the local community," Mr Aitchison said.
"That's the distinction, we're small business owners who are doing this for a lifestyle, so you've got to think about what's your priority in life," Mr Tillman said.
"Of course you want to make money, but that's not the drive. For us, it's not even that difficult to make these decisions, but if you're a guy sitting on the end of your bank account going 'how much money did I make this year' then you're going to make different ones."
That said, both are hoping their decisions to be cautious pay off soon, as the financial hit of 2020 is not sustainable.
For Yours and Owls especially, which derives its entire income from events and live music, 2021 needs to be a better year.
"For the first six months, we lost 100 per cent of our income, and we're now kind of operating at about 10-20 per cent," Mr Tillman said. "It's been a massive hit. We had to cancel the festival - it's millions of dollars."
"At the start we were really proactive around how we could make it work until it comes back to normal - we did the [Hockey Dad Drive In concert]. Those events were great - but there's no money in it and that's really what we need now.
"It's hard to keep the energy up - it feels like we've totally been forgotten, whether it's the local council or state and federal governments.
"There's no future planning really, it's day to day - we have to do what we can for the things we have in front of us, but we can't keep going through it."
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