“Confused and inadequate”: Business groups slam inaction on Melbourne reopening, as state records zero new cases

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. Source: AAP/James Ross.

Business groups have reacted with anger and disappointment after Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews failed to announce any further easing of restrictions yesterday, despite suggestions earlier in the week there was news to come.

Rather than offering any certainty to Melbourne businesses, Andrews said the state government was waiting on the results of about 1,000 swabs, and would base his next steps on this information.

Since then, the ABC reported that 1,135 tests returned to DHHS yesterday were all negative.

“We’ll use the next couple of days to review those results and understand exactly how this virus is travelling,” Andrews said in a statement.

In his press briefing, Andrews described the delay as a “cautious pause”.

But it’s a pause that may bring more frustration to Melbourne’s businesses.

Under the original reopening roadmap, the city’s hospitality businesses were due to reopen to outdoor diners today.

As per Andrews’ announcement last week, this changed to November 2, although he said a continuation of low case numbers could bring this date forward.

Now, it’s unclear when restaurants and bars will be able to reopen, or how far in advance they will know about it.

The latest figures for Melbourne show zero new cases in the past 24 hours, and no additional lives lost.

That brings the 14-day rolling average for metropolitan Melbourne to 3.6. There are a total of seven cases with an unknown source.

Under the original roadmap, the criteria to move to the next step was a rolling average of less than five, and a total of five cases or fewer from an unknown source.

Andrews is expected to address the press again at some point this afternoon.

“Confused and inadequate”

Responding to yesterday’s announcement — or lack thereof — a statement from the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA) suggested its members are “deeply concerned” there has been a breaking of good faith with regards to the reopening roadmap.

“The date has been reached. The health criterion has been achieved. But there is no re-opening and this is a breaking of good faith with the community,” the statement says.

COSBOA expressed concern that the track and trace system for following up on positive cases is “inadequate”, and noted there have been communication failures in containing outbreaks.

The small business community is losing faith in the state government’s response, COSBOA said, noting that mixed messages and moving goalposts do nothing to help the situation.

“Confused and inadequate communications are not what is needed in a crisis. The Premier holds a press conference every day and has not created confidence or understanding in the business community.”

Finally, COSBOA said people who are calling for more consultation, information and clarity are being characterised in a negative light, painted as “uncaring and craven”.

“The polarisation of the community from poor consultation is not a good outcome for the future,” the statement said.

“Show us the economic plan. Show us the plans for managing hot spots and show us the approach to contact tracing.

“Include the business community in the planning and the process. Then we can have some type of certainty in uncertain times.”

Christmas is coming

Elsewhere, the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) has also expressed concern about the further delay to retail reopening.

ARA chief executive Paul Zahra called for retail workers to be allowed to return to stores to start making the COVIDSafe, and to start preparations for the Christmas period.

When retail reopened after the first lockdown, stores saw an influx of demand, Zahra noted. As we get closer to Christmas, that’s likely to be more pronounced this time.

“Retailers make up to two-thirds of their profits at this time of year and that cash has never been more desperately needed. We need to stick to a firm reopening date to give the retail sector time to prepare their staff and their customers,” he said.

And this isn’t only the interest of the Victorian economy. A quarter of Australia’s retail sales came from Victoria, Zahra said, and a large proportion of warehousing and distribution facilities are in the state.

Melbourne’s lockdowns are causing flow-on effects elsewhere, he said.

“Victoria plays such a vital role in the national retail industry … It’s not Christmas without Victoria.”

Regional roadmap

Yesterday’s announcement did, however, bring some joy to businesses in regional Victoria, where there are just two active COVID-19 cases.

As of 11.59pm on Tuesday night, gyms and indoor fitness centres are able to reopen, with a cap of 10 people per space and 20 people per venue, and with a density cap of one person per eight square metres.

Indoor pools are also allowed to open to up to 20 people, and food courts are able to reopen.

Tourism operators are also allowed to get back up and running, to some extent, with 30-minute trips using vehicles allowed, as long as they’re visiting outdoor facilities, and meet density requirements.

Live music will also be permitted outdoors, although gigs will look a little different. Band members will be included in the venue’s density limits, and must remain at least two metres apart, while all band members, excluding singers, will have to wear a mask on stage.

We will bring you today’s updates as we get them.

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