By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE/GEELONG, Australia (Reuters) - Gina Cimarosti would normally be hosting swarms of thirsty football fans at her corner pub ahead of Australia's biggest weekend of sport but a prolonged lockdown due to COVID-19 has kept the beer taps dry and crushed the party vibe in Melbourne.
The manager of the London Tavern Hotel now runs a skeleton business of takeaway coffee and snacks from a window of the 99-year-old venue in inner-city Richmond, earning a fraction of takings in better times.
The leadup to Saturday's Australian Football League (AFL) Grand Final is usually a big money-maker for Melbourne's hospitality industry, as locals and tourists pack out bars, restaurants and hotels.
This year could not be more different, with the showpiece match of Australian Rules having moved to Brisbane due to a second wave of infections in the southern city.
The hulking Melbourne Cricket Ground, the Grand Final's traditional venue, gathers cobwebs a short walk from Cimarosti's pub.
"The Grand Final is usually the biggest day of our year," Cimarosti told Reuters in an empty room at the London Tavern.
"It's hard not to lose a bit of faith ... But we're just trying to look forward."
Melbourne has been locked down for all but a few weeks since March.
Infections have slowed to a trickle in recent weeks, easing some social restrictions on a weary population, but authorities remain wary of opening up quickly for fear of the city falling victim to the outbreaks that have re-emerged in Europe.
Melbourne residents' frustrations have been compounded by seeing compatriots enjoying normal lives elsewhere, with some Australian states effectively COVID-free for weeks.
There has been no spectator sport in Melbourne for months, but a crowd of 30,000 will watch the AFL Grand Final at the Gabba in Brisbane.
A half-capacity crowd of 40,000 has been approved for the National Rugby League's (NRL) season-ending Grand Final in Sydney on Sunday.
The AFL and NRL deciders both feature Melbourne teams, with the Richmond Tigers defending their AFL title against the Geelong Cats, and Melbourne Storm playing the Sydney-based Penrith Panthers for the NRL championship.
Melbourne's football-mad fans are unable to attend either game due to travel restrictions and face A$5,000 ($3,500) fines if they invite a friend to their house to watch them.
House parties and backyard barbecues are usually a feature of Grand Final day but police have warned they will deploy drones and helicopters to watch for illegal gatherings.
"We will have a strong, dedicated and highly visible presence right from Geelong to Richmond ... to ensure it is a safe day for everyone," a senior Victoria Police official said.
There have only been a handful of small protests from Melbourne's masked citizenry during lockdown, with most complying with social restrictions.
Yet with thousands out of work and small businesses pushed to the wall, bitterness is brewing.
"We've got 'COVID-safe' plans to run our businesses but we're being held hostage because (authorities) are worried they're going to stuff it up again," said a cafe owner in Richmond who requested anonymity.
In Geelong, the home-town of the Cats, locals have enjoyed a relatively normal buildup to the Grand Final.
Pubs and restaurants in the port city an hour's drive from Melbourne are allowed 70 customers outdoors and 40 indoors since a rules update on Monday, and residents can have five guests at their homes, enabling small gatherings for the football.
On Grand Final eve on Friday, a traditional public holiday, shops hung blue-and-white decorations in the Cats' colours and cafes filled their tables to the limit of government thresholds.
Former Cats forward and Geelong publican Billy Brownless, who played in four Grand Finals from 1989-1995, was glad he would host a proper crowd at his Cremorne Hotel during Saturday's decider.
While hoping for a Cats win, the 53-year-old echoed many in Geelong offering condolences for Richmond's yellow-and-black army of supporters locked down in Melbourne.
"It's been a real shame this year, and we certainly feel for our friends in Melbourne," Brownless told Reuters.
"It's building up in Geelong but it's been a late start."
($1 = 1.4108 Australian dollars)
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)