It seems like forever ago that Prime Minister Scott Morrison was beamed into everyone’s lounge rooms in late March with a simple, yet disconcerting message: Australians should stay at home.

Lockdown had effectively begun, as the country sought to insulate itself from the COVID-19 pandemic which had crashed down on the world – seemingly out of the blue.

First there was Wuhan and then suddenly, it was everywhere.

In Toowoomba, as elsewhere across the country, life changed overnight.

First it was the pubs and clubs, cafes and restaurants that closed, then the libraries and museums, beauty salons and everything else deemed “non-essential” followed.

And as large sections of the national economy and social life shut down, life in Toowoomba got very small.

And with it, people’s needs for assistance from the government grew.

For the first time in a long time, the queue for Toowoomba’s Centrelink office stretched down Bell St and around the corner – a situation mirrored online where the Centrelink website crashed due to demand.

It was against this backdrop of uncertainty and hardship that Toowoomba was able to pivot.

Learning went online – so too did work, for those who had the ability to do so.

But it was in business that the greatest changes in Toowoomba occurred.

“Local” became front and centre of people’s minds when they went to the shop as they tried to support businesses within the immediate community.

“We saw Australian made products selling out first,” Toowoomba Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Rohl said.

“Consumers became more selective when buying product, and local businesses became the winners as the community went local first.”

The impact is lasting – plenty of local suppliers, from the Toowoomba Farmers Markets to Stoney the Fishmonger and butchers and grocers have seen increases in trade – some significant – as a result of the pandemic.

More broadly, Mr Rohl said COVID-19 had changed business, its strategic approach and its operations in Toowoomba.

“We have seen big shifts to the workplace structures, with new home-based workplaces becoming the norm as technology was embraced by employers and employees to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all and business survival,” he said.

“The disruption led to the embracing of what could be achieved, which will be lasting in my view, as we capitalise on efficiencies gained, a reduction in operational costs and the opportunity for improved work-life balance.

“Businesses adapted quickly, upgrading or building new digital platform capabilities, and many business took time to rethink business strategy redefining markets and growth opportunities.”

While some industries – hospitality notably – lost out during the pandemic, there were also plenty of winners.

Toowoomba and Surat Basin Enterprise CEO Ali Davenport said some of the silver linings to the pandemic were obvious.

Take local exporters, for example, who have diversified their businesses and sought out new markets as the pandemic disrupted traditional supply chains.

She also pointed out how COVID-19 had highlighted the risk of relying on offshore manufacturing, giving the region’s manufacturing sector the opportunity to grow in the future – with further government support.

“There’s more freight opportunities available directly into Asia for regional produce as a result of the International Freight Assistance Mechanism with weekly freight flights into Singapore and an additional weekly flight into Hong Kong,” Ms Davenport said.

The pandemic also forced businesses to innovate.

Stripped of their wedding functions, Preston Peak started making hand sanitiser.

The University of Southern Queensland print and design company Ellipsis Media started printing 3D hands-free door handles.

Ability Enterprises added to its cleaning arsenal with an antiviral fogging machine.

Ms Davenport said the pandemic had led to greater recognition of healthy workplaces.

“Advancements in technology have made working from home much easier, with many businesses still regularly using Zoom calls and Teams Meetings to stay in touch,” she said.

“Companies are now more aware of the importance of workplace wellness to support the mental and physical health of staff.”

And to cap it off, more Queenslanders explored the Toowoomba region’s towns and hidden gems as a result of travel restrictions.

“Tourism in our region has never been stronger,” Ms Davenport said.

“Many businesses are having their best year ever due to new opportunities in tourism, manufacturing or changing consumer habits.”