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‘Numbing. Surreal’: Businesses in Victoria brace for impact of fourth coronavirus lockdown

On day one of Victoria’s fourth coronavirus lockdown, Melbourne bar and restaurant owner Greg Sanderson knows the drill. 

He has a checklist: break news to staff, finalise the cancellations from wine events and festivals, and organise how to deal with food spoilage. 

Mr Sanderson said he is bracing himself for an expected financial loss in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

“The reaction was just numbness to be honest. It has been such a rollercoaster up and down,” he told SBS News. 

“It is a very numbing, surreal situation to be in again.

“Twenty-four hours since they announced the lockdown, there is still no news about any kind of support for us.

“It is the unknown – that is the big worry. It is going to be seven days [of lockdown]? Is it going to be thirty days? Are we going to get some support?”

Acting Victorian Premier James Merlino has not made any commitments to a support package for business, but said there would be one “in the coming days”. The federal government’s JobKeeper wage subsidy program ended on 28 March, and there is no plan to put in place something similar.

As the managing director of The Speakeasy Group, which manages three bars and one restaurant in Melbourne’s CBD, Mr Sanderson said business had been recovering well – almost to pre-COVID levels. 

“We had on a weekly basis people coming out for big celebrations – so there was heaps of momentum. The demand for venues was great.”

‘Let down’

But now he is busy finalising the cancellations. 

“At the moment, it is just half way through Australian cocktail month, which has been cancelled. Melbourne Rising has been cancelled. Food and wine events cancelled.

“So just as we were getting back into it [this lockdown happens] It’s a massive letdown for event planners, venues, staff. It’s gut wrenching.”

Except for a handful of operations staff that can work from home, the majority of the 110 employees working across the four business venues are now out of a job. And this time there is no JobKeeper wage subsidy to help make ends meet. 

Victoria investigates two sites for dedicated quarantine hub

“The level of anxiety that this has caused for business owners and staff – just needlessly.”

He said business owners do feel “let down”.

“They have let us down again with the quarantine. And they have let us down with pulling support and not being able to announce the support at the same time that we’ve gone into a lockdown.” 

With the fourth lockdown in full effect, Mr Sanderson said the mental health impacts are also noticeable. 

“It affects everyone differently.

“I know some fellow business owners they get hit really hard with bouts of depression and anxiety.

“For me, I just feel numb, I feel flat.”

‘Almost worst this time around’

The Kettle Black cafe in South Melbourne has reverted back to a takeaway-only service model.

Assistant manager Georgia O’Sullivan has had to lay off almost half of the 20 employees, including young university students. 

“This time round, we can’t just have our JobKeeper workers on. We’re back to a massive impact to the business, in terms of wage costs. We have to absorb them completely.

“We have said to staff: ‘If you’re nearby, come get food, get coffee.’

“But for many of our young staffers, they’re very much on their own.”

She said young people have been resourceful during the pandemic in finding multiple income streams, but it has been distressing to start rebuilding the business, only to lay staff off again. 

“And this is not the first time, they have been stepped down by us. During the last lockdown, we had to step down the same staff.

“And there is rhetoric (from politicians) that this is just part of it. And it is actually just crazy that in the workforce we say to young people: ‘just step down’.

The Kettle Black in Melbourne had been doing a bustling trade just before the latest lockdown was announced. Now the business ha

The Kettle Black in Melbourne had been doing a bustling trade just before the latest lockdown was announced. Now the business has reverted back to takeaway only service.

Supplied

“It is kind of a weird normal, our new reality.”

Ms O’Sullivan said the business will be down to an eighth of what it has been over the week-long lockdown, not to mention the thousands of dollars in food wastage. 

“We were heading into the weekend, which is our biggest sales. We sit almost 300 people every Saturday and Sunday – and we’re just not going to get that. We’ve said goodbye to an almost $25,000-weekend.”

But the heartbreaking part is that the business had returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

“It is almost worst this time around because we got that glimpse of normalcy.

“The pandemic – we had almost compartmentalised it, thinking we were back to normal. Now the jump back into pandemic takeaway world… I think it is the jump that is so sad.”

She said she does not expect the business to permanently fold as it is owned by an enterprise that has “lots of different things going on in other pots”.

But with no CBD office workers, the decision is being made on whether to keep the takeaway business open. 

“Everyone is just hoping that is seven days only. Trying to keep that sort of rapport and morale up.”

Georgia O'Sullivan, the assistant manager of The Kettle Black cafe in South Melbourne, says it has been heartbreaking to lay off staff members.

Georgia O’Sullivan, the assistant manager of The Kettle Black cafe in South Melbourne, says it has been heartbreaking to lay off staff members.

Supplied

$1 billion loss to Victorian businesses

Industry bodies representing Victoria’s business sector said more than $1 billion in direct sales would be lost during the seven-day lockdown, and $1.5 billion more in indirect sales. 

Tim Piper from the Australian Industry Group believes there will be a lasting impact, including possibly permanent closure for some businesses that never recovered from the previous lockdowns. 

“They [businesses] are going to be trying to maintain themselves beyond this lockdown period. But there will be some that simply cannot. 

“Then it is the (virus) resurgence – the lack of confidence they have, the lack of confidence in the community. It is all going to have a compounding effect.

“We’re just unhappy that we’ve reached this situation again – and finding a way out of it is the most important thing for Victorians to do.”

He said more support needs to be provided by the state and federal government to “safeguard the community”, including a replacement for JobKeeper at the federal level, and the removal of the mental health levy on 9,000 businesses at a state level. 

“If we don’t have some element of support from the governments, there will be some real concerns about whether some companies get back into business.”

Mr Sanderson said he would like to see more support for businesses and staff, in particular a JobKeeper-type measure for casuals and those on temporary work visas. 

“The moment we went into lockdown, our message to staff was: ‘we’ll take care of you’.

“‘If staff need loans, if you’re going to be financially struggling, we’re here to help’.

“And I feel the government doesn’t even take that attitude with us.

“It is not enough. They need to reinforce that they are going to support businesses and staff.”

Ms O’Sullivan said even a one-off wage subsidy would make a huge difference to businesses. 

“This time around, we’re getting no help. And staff wages are our biggest cost. 

“We will probably be one of the lucky ones who survive [this lockdown]. But a lot of businesses won’t.”

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyondblue.org.auEmbrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

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