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Businesses “on its knees” as Omicron wave continues to bite

Businesses “on its knees” as Omicron wave continues to bite
Brendan Rees

COVID-related staff shortages and lockdown-like conditions keeping consumers at home is causing devastating impacts for Southbank traders who are begging for help.

Many restaurants, cafes, and eateries told Southbank News they did not know what was “going to happen next” after making the difficult decision to either reduce their opening hours or close temporarily because of staffing constraints or a fall in foot traffic.

Breslin Bar and Grill manager Katia said while trade was “slowly, slowly going back to normal”, their Southbank Promenade venue was still “very understaffed”.

“It’s been very challenging for all of us that’s for sure ... we have been looking for managers, it’s been over three months, [but] no luck yet,” she said, adding staff were working longer hours to cover shifts.

Katia, who asked for her surname not to be used, said the Omicron wave had also rattled consumer confidence, which resulted in either closing their outdoor or indoor dining areas due to low patronage.

“When it’s quiet we just open one, [with] maybe two or three staff on the floor, that’s about it,” she said.

“We closed when a couple of staff tested positive to COVID, myself included, and we had to shut for four or five days in January.”

Betwixt Café and Bar owner Cheng Liu said his Southbank venue was “certainly impacted” with a shortfall in staff and customers “still scared to dine out”.

“Because of short staff, we try to survive. It’s a very hard time. We can do nothing,” he said.

Dead Man Espresso owner Rubin Carapyen said, “It just feels like another lockdown. It’s still up and down”. “There’s no one in the café,” he said, speaking of a Wednesday lunch service at his South Melbourne venue.

He said isolation rules were changing “almost every day” and “we don’t even know what’s going to happen next.”

“I’ve cut my staff hours but now … I’m going to have to cut down our trading hours from three to probably one [o’clock].”

He said even if a third of workers were to return to offices and the government offered some cash support it would help. 

“You don’t need to get the full amount like we got last time, just half of it would get us through it.”

Nick Edgar, owner of Gordon Espresso, agreed, saying there “definitely needs to be some level of help” by the government.

“The problem is there’s no structure to what’s going on,” he said. “Previous lockdowns had structure – they weren’t perfect but at least they had structure and now it’s just every man for himself.”

 

There probably only needs to be a couple of months [of support] just to get us over this hump.

 

At the February 1 Future Melbourne Committee meeting, City of Melbourne councillors spoke of the critical need to provide financial support for businesses who were “desperate” for help.

Councillors voted to lobby the state government to support traders with a range of incentives to boost city visitation as well as review its work from home advice.

The council will seek an additional round of hotel vouchers to support stays in the CBD, free public transport for major events such as Moomba, and a third serving of the successful Melbourne Money scheme which injected $60 million into city cafes, bars, and restaurants.

However, while the motion was passed, Cr Roshena Campbell spoke against an amendment which sought to call on the Premier and the Prime Minister to engage with workers’ representatives to facilitate a return to work “as soon as it is safe to do so,” saying “given the reluctance of public servants to return it is inconceivable that the involvement of unions is going to positively facilitate their speedy return while our city is on its knees.”

Cr Campbell said it “would make yet another delay in getting workers back” and one traders “cannot afford” after referencing that 53 per cent of businesses had told a council survey that they weren’t confident of lasting “three more months”.

But her viewpoint was roundly rejected by councillors who said supporting the engagement of workers’ representatives would “expedite the process” of bringing workers back.

Cr Capp said the “shadow lockdown” had been “demoralising” for business, and by calling on all levels of government, the council was committed to “doing whatever we can to get the city buzzing again”.

The Yarra River Business Association said weekday foot traffic for January was up 30 to 50 per cent compared to the same time last year, but 50 per cent lower than January 2020 (pre-pandemic).

“Rebuilding Melburnians confidence in returning to the CBD, and specifically to Southbank for entertainment, will be the big challenge for 2022,” it said •

 

Caption: Nick Edgar, owner of Gordon Espresso.

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