FOR The Muswellbrook Hotel's publican, Daniel Keegan, his hopes of a celebratory return to business with Freedom Day beers for his patrons could have gone up in smoke.
The hotelier arrived at the historic pub to prepare for the first day of trading after Muswellbrook came out of lockdown only to discover there had been a small fire in the cool room.
"I was devastated," Mr Keegan said. "Usually your beer taps are frosty and cold, but I noticed they were at room temperature."
Then Mr Keegan found the damage in the cool room.
"Crazy," he said. "Just when you think it can't get any worse."
Although, he said, it could have been worse. At least he still had a pub to open on Monday morning.
While tradesmen fixed the cool room, about 20 patrons enjoyed a beer - from bottles and cans.
"It's actually a bit disappointing you can't have a schooner, but stubbies are okay," said Col Caldwell.
The local plant operator said he was pleased COVID restrictions had eased in his area, so he could have a drink and talk with others.
"The social aspect is huge in Muswellbrook," said Mr Caldwell.
By early afternoon, the damage was repaired, and beer was flowing from the taps. Daniel Keegan appreciated seeing the "regular faces", who had "flashed their certificates" to show they had been double vaccinated and were permitted in the pub. He said he had to refuse some regular patrons who had experienced difficulty getting fully vaccinated.
"This Freedom Day doesn't feel like a whole lot of freedom, being the police, but at least we're trading," Mr Keegan said.
Dungog has been tasting greater freedom since September 16, when COVID restrictions were eased in that local government area.
However, locals are now preparing for the arrival of outsiders coming out of lockdown, and, according to Dungog Mayor John Connors, that is bringing both joy and apprehension.
"Apprehension, because the vaccination rates overall in the Hunter aren't all that high, and we here in Dungog have been lucky, but other LGAs in the region have not been so lucky, and we might see the bad result of that with the easing of restrictions," said Cr Connors. "And joy; obviously for the cafes and others, it's a return to business, it's bucks in the pocket, and they all need that."
One Dungog business preparing for more customers is the Tinshed Brewery.
"We've been brewing like mad," said Haley Cox, who owns the popular Dowling Street brewery with her husband, David "Jimmy" Cox.
However, Haley Cox said with so much uncertainty stirred up by COVID, it was difficult to predict how many customers might turn up. Still, the brewery was preparing for a busy weekend ahead.
"We're pleased to be getting back to some kind of normality, " she said. "But it's a bit nerve-racking, and let's hope everyone behaves. I think most people are going to be well-behaved."
Dungog mayor John Connors said he accepted his area opening up, saying it would be "unrealistic" to expect people to stay away.
"We've got to the point where you have to accept we've got to open up but still press the point that people have to act appropriately and get vaccinated," he said.
Coinciding with the return of customers from other areas, Tinshed has created a "mulberry sour" beer, as the fruit is in season.
"Maybe it's a fresh start," Haley Cox said. "We need a bit of hope and positivity."
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