Inconsistent COVID-19 restrictions are harming small business. We need to do better

small-business-restrictions

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Mandated closure of ‘non-essential business’ and other trading restrictions have been a nightmare for small business owners around the country, both for income and for mental health. Confusion just makes it worse. We need a nationally consistent, standardised approach to COVID-19 restrictions so that small business owners can plan for the risk of a lockdown.  

When Australia first went into lockdown in March 2020, the Australasian Convenience and Petroleum Marketers Association (ACAPMA) started receiving concerning phone calls from distressed service station owners in Victoria and South Australia reporting that police officers were ‘manhandling’ truck drivers away from roadside rest areas — they had interpreted the rest areas to be a dining facility, a non-essential part of the service station that was required to close. The federal government had made an exemption for roadhouses, truck stop facilities and truck driver lounges to stay open so heavy vehicle drivers could take breaks to manage their fatigue, but this information hadn’t made it through to state police forces.  

However, this was early on in the pandemic — governments were new to this and had to smooth out the finer details and quirks of restrictions.  

When Adelaide went into lockdown in November, ACAPMA started receiving confused phone calls again. Though they were allowed to stay open, South Australia had prevented service stations from selling certain products, including takeaway food. None of the previous lockdowns had done this.  

As ACAPMA chief Mark McKenzie explains, “we got to saying, is a coffee takeaway food? Is a prepared salad takeaway food or normal food?” 

“We had this ridiculous discussion around the fact that we’ve had inconsistency in the structure and nature of restrictions … I had more calls on those two issues than on any other associated with the lockdown. It was extraordinary.”  

These are only two of many examples of small business industry associations grappling with confusion and inconsistency between state government approaches to COVID-19 restrictions. 

The confusion over whether hairdressing is essential is well-known. 

Equipment hire businesses weren’t on the list of essential retail in Victoria despite being expected to hire fences and generators to COVID testing sites. 

Complementary medicine and allied health businesses like massage therapists are open, closed, or forgotten altogether depending on which state government has called the lockdown. Despite being mandated to close during Victoria’s most recent circuit breaker lockdowns, they weren’t eligible for state government business support grants as their ANZSIC code wasn’t on the list of affected industries.  

So when state premiers started announcing the latest series of lockdowns, it was déjà vu. Every state has a slightly different set of rules. NSW and QLD list the businesses that need to close to the public. Retail isn’t on the list, but consumers are only allowed to leave the home to buy ‘essentials.’ QLD includes ‘non-essential businesses’ on its list, which could be interpreted as retail. Or not. Western Australia goes further and specifies which types of retail are considered ‘essential providers’. The Northern Territory only lists the types of businesses that can remain open.  

This has caused confusion and chaos for COSBOA’s industry association members.  

Christine Pope from the Australian Traditional Medicine Society explains: “Currently WA is going with a very restrictive definition of allied health which is restricted to hospitals. NSW and QLD have advised that therapeutic massage is able to operate. No-one seems to be able to get clarification from the Northern Territory! The problem is the term ‘allied health’ is defined differently in each state and we need to dive down into the detail to make sure we provide the correct information [to our members].” 

Meanwhile, Ben Kearney from the Australian Lottery and Newsagents Association likens it to “banging your head against a brick wall”.

“We couldn’t get an update from the Northern Territory on any other retail being able to open outside of supermarkets initially and whether newsagents were an essential service consistent with every other jurisdiction … The good news is after a few days we got them open again with a consistent approach, which we were grateful for,” he says. 
 
“Small businesses need certainty, and it’s not unreasonable for retailers to assume that is what they should get from their governments this far down the road in the pandemic.” 

Sandy Chong from the Australian Hairdressing Council says some of her members have noticed their local $2 shop has opened when they were forced to close their hairdressing salon. 

“It doesn’t make sense. I’ve also been told that Priceline is open because three-quarters of their space is retail,” she adds. 

This is why COSBOA is advocating for a nationally consistent, standardised approach to COVID-19 restrictions. That way, through their industry associations, small business owners could educate themselves on the restrictions, expectations and support available to plan when they can stay open, when they need to reduce their capacity, and when they need to close to the public. 

While the long-term goal should be to mitigate the impact of lockdowns, they are a reality the business community will need to live with until a high percentage of the Australian population is vaccinated.  

Let’s plan better, together.  

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