Business help amid “devastating” impact of lockdown

By David Schout

Southbank businesses will benefit from a $20 million lifeline after the state government declared inner-city businesses had been “uniquely hit” by the coronavirus (COVID-19).

In announcing further assistance, the government’s CBD Business Support Fund aims to help businesses faced with a “large and sustained shock to their trading environments”.

While details of the grant were still yet to be released at time of publishing, a government spokesperson confirmed that, despite what the name suggested, the grants would be available to both Southbank and Docklands businesses along with those in the CBD.

The announcement came after a City of Melbourne survey before the second lockdown revealed around 15 per cent of businesses were either unsure of their future or would close permanently as a result of the pandemic.

While more than 80,000 employing businesses within metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire would be eligible for a $5000 grant, small and medium inner-city businesses were set to receive even greater support.

The grants program was expanded by a further $5000 on August 3 following announcements made by Premier Daniel Andrews regarding stage 4 restrictions after officially declaring a “State of Disaster” in Victoria the previous day.

“For those businesses that suffer significant losses or need to close as a result of the current restrictions, we will provide support through our expanded Business Support Fund,” Premier Andrews said. “Those in Melbourne and Mitchell Shire can apply for up to $10,000 in recognition of spending longer under restrictions.”

Effective from 11:59pm on August 5, the state government also imposed restrictions on a range of businesses as part of the stage 4 lockdowns, which were largely in response to significant numbers of community transmissions spread from workplaces.

While supermarkets, grocery stores, bottle shops, pharmacies, petrol stations, banks, news agencies and post offices can continue to operate, all other industries face significant restrictions or closure under the new rules.

Premier Andrews said that all open businesses and services had until 11:59pm on August 7 to enact a COVIDSafe plan focused on safety, prevention and response in the event that coronavirus was linked to the workplace.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison followed this by announcing a $1500 pandemic disaster payment for Victorians who had exhausted sick leave.

Speaking in July, Victorian Minister for Industry Support and Recovery Martin Pakula said the government was aware of the distinct problems faced by central city business owners.

“[Central Melbourne] has in some respects been uniquely hit by the fact that stay-at-home directives have particularly kept people away,” he said.

“And the absence of foot traffic in the CBD has meant many businesses in the city, and Docklands and Southbank, have been particularly affected by the restrictions that have been imposed on Victorians.”

A usually vibrant central Melbourne and Southbank was again rendered desolate after stage three restrictions were re-imposed on July 9.

The government went a step further and introduced stage four restrictions on August 2, to be in place until at least September 13.

After experiencing a brief resurgence in the period after Melbourne’s first lockdown, foot traffic in Southbank nosedived in the last month.

The City of Melbourne’s pedestrian sensors indicated that in the last week of July, the number of pedestrians passing through Southbank Promenade during evening peak hour (5pm-6pm) averaged only 530.

This number is usually well above 2000.

The government acknowledged this, and also indicated it would look to assist tourism operators and businesses associated with the night-time economy.

Mr Pakula said the latter had “suffered greatly”.

“It is a very important part, not just of Victoria’s economy, but of Melbourne’s culture. It is one of the things that has set Melbourne apart over many years; our bars, our restaurants, our laneways, our theatre district,” he said.

“And it’s why we’re providing specific support because we want to see all of those businesses, or at least as many of them as possible, through to the other side. They’re going to be a crucial part of returning us to the Melbourne we love … we want to see those businesses survive. There are some critical differences, and some critical responses needed, in particular for that night-time economy in Melbourne.”

Deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood, the council’s finance chair, said the package was “much-needed”, but acknowledged some businesses were on a knife’s edge during the second lockdown period.

“Our city has taken a massive hit,” Cr Wood said.

“The biggest of any capital city. We need bold thinking and ideas to get us through. Otherwise recovery will take years. My only worry is that this Victorian Government business support won’t be enough to see many struggling businesses through the next six weeks after impacts since March. Any help is absolutely welcome though.”

Cr Wood said the council would also issue temporary free parking permits to food premises to help them deliver takeaway meals during lockdown. The parking permits will be available from July 21 and will apply until further notice.

“We want to support restaurants and cafes to set up their own home delivery services,” the Deputy Lord Mayor said.

“Each business will be eligible for two passes so they can park for free in areas with green signs close to their business or near their customer’s delivery address where that address is within the City of Melbourne,” the Deputy Lord Mayor said.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said while she was obviously pleased many Melburnians were adhering to stay-at-home measures, the huge dip in foot traffic had a “devastating impact” on businesses.

“We usually have about 950,000 people coming into the city every day, [but] with people listening and complying with the restrictions it means that we don’t have those hundreds and thousands of people coming in to support our local retailers and hospitality,” she said.

On July 21, the federal government announced that it would be extending its JobKeeper program from September until March, but that fortnightly amounts would be scaled back to $1200 a fortnight. A payment of $750 will be provided to those working less than 20 hours per week. Businesses will also be required to report turnover quarterly to prove eligibility.

The JobSeeker unemployment benefit has also changed, with the $550 coronavirus supplement cut to $250 through until the end of 2020.  

While there were some calls for the original $1500 payments for both JobKeeper and JobSeeker to be extended in Victoria due to the declared State of Disaster, the federal government had not announced any changes at the time of publishing •

City of Melbourne Business Concierge Hotline: 9658 9658

Business information: business.vic.gov.au/coronavirus

Guide to stage 4 business restrictions: dhhs.vic.gov.au/updates/coronavirus-covid-19/premiers-statement-business-restrictions

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