“Heartbreaking”: Melbourne businesses losing hope in the face of second COVID-19 lockdown

Melbourne businesses

The Emerson will be empty for at least another six weeks. Source: supplied.

Mark Hinkley and his staff were standing on the rooftop of The Emerson restaurant and nightclub in South Yarra yesterday when Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews delivered the news they had all been dreading: Melbourne is headed back into lockdown.

For Hinkley, the Australian director of restaurant group Tadcaster Hospitality, the prospect of reverting to takeaway and delivery for another six weeks is difficult to stomach.

“It’s devastating for our staff, suppliers and everyone else,” Hinkley tells SmartCompany.

“The little money that we had left was spent on re-opening and marketing, we were booked out on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“That’s all gone to waste now, and through no fault of our own.”

Hinkley saw The Emerson’s weekly revenues plummet by 97% when Victoria’s first lockdown was instated in March — income the business had just started to recover in recent weeks.

Now Hinkley and thousands of other business owners across Australia’s second biggest city will be forced right back into the type of trading conditions that ravaged the hospitality industry several months ago.

The hardest thing, Hinkley says, will be remaining positive; the prospect of going through another lockdown is still a fairly foreign concept to those SmartCompany spoke with on Wednesday.

The industry has been in shock for months as the coronavirus crisis has ripped through hospitality businesses, but Lockdown Take Two will be all the more difficult.

Melbourne businesses have already pushed themselves to the brink to get through the first lockdown, and many had invested savings in re-opening.

Compounding the stress, federal government support in the form of JobKeeper and rent deferrals will expire in September, just over a month after Melbourne’s lockdown is due to expire.

That’s to say nothing of the potential for an extended lockdown, or even a third false dawn if restrictions are once again eased before a third uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Chrissie Maus, general manager of the Chapel Street Precinct traders association, says businesses in the area had managed to make a month’s worth of takeaway and delivery revenue in just one week of being able to re-open their dining rooms.

“It’s heartbreaking as the Mum and Dad businesses that are relying on foot traffic will hurt the most,” Maus says.

“One week of opening delivers the same amount of revenue from four weeks of takeaway/pick-up.

“We do have some silver linings but the next six weeks is going to be exceptionally hard.”

For Hinkley the most distressing part about the news is that the hospitality industry has been demonstrating a commitment to hygienic practices in recent weeks, even amid unprecedented financial pressure.

“Most of the venues I’ve visited have all done the right thing. They’ve been sanitising and making sure their venue is clean, and to be thrown back into lockdown again with less than 48 hours’ notice, it’s heartbreaking,” Hinkley says.

Digging deep: “The small business fighting mentality”

Mark Castagnini, owner of Hammer’s Gym in Nunawading, had only re-opened his 2000 sqm business on June 22 and was not yet charging any of his members.

Now he’ll be forced to close again, with no prospect of hosting any members until at least midway through August.

“In hindsight not charging any of our members probably further frustrated my position, but I was anticipating things would get better,” Castagnini tells SmartCompany.

Mark Castagnini, owner of Hammer’s Gym in Nunawading.

Castagnini has made a habit out of watching the coronavirus infection statistics closely, and had actually anticipated Andrews would be forced to institute another lockdown throughout Melbourne several days ago.

“It was like a car accident in slow motion, you just see it coming towards you and you’re like, oh no,” he says.

For Castagnini the prospect of closing down again is a particularly bitter bill, with $150,000 already poured into improving the business during the first lockdown.

“I had anticipated we’d be back to trading with some normality sooner rather than later,” he says.

“Now not only am I behind on lost revenue, but also recouping this additional investment is an added frustration.”

The business owner has already had to cancel shifts for staff and begin re-writing his business plan, but he’s not giving up yet.

“Now more than ever, the small business fighting mentality is coming to the fore,” he says.

“Gone are the boom days, it’s survival of the fittest now, it’s about who will make the most savvy business plan and who’s going to operate effectively.

“I’ll never take anything for granted again when it comes to COVID-19.”

Take two: Businesses to close as lockdown covers Melbourne

From 11:59pm tonight, stage three “stay at home” restrictions will be reinstated across the entirety of metropolitan Melbourne for six weeks.

Thousands of businesses from the Yarra Ranges to Mornington Peninsula will be required to revert to stage three trading restrictions. The full list of areas that will re-enter lockdown is available here.

Restaurants and cafes will return to takeaway and delivery services only, beauty and personal services businesses will be forced to close, alongside entertainment and cultural venues.

Residents will also be forced to stay home, except for permitted essential reasons such as shopping for food, care giving, daily exercise or work and study.

Melbourne businesses must ensure staff who can work from home do so, in yet more bad news for companies relying on office commuters in the central business district.

Restaurant and cafe owners in Melbourne are already counting the costs of the second lockdown, which comes just as many were beginning to re-open their businesses.

Premier: “Deeply frustrating”

Speaking about the decision on Tuesday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews admitted the lockdown would be “frustrating” for businesses and residents.

“This is not where any of us wanted to be, but we have to face the reality of our situation. To do anything else would have deadly consequences,” Andrews said.

“I don’t take this step lightly. And I know just how deeply frustrating this is for everyone.”

Andrews has faced criticism in recent days after it was revealed failures in government-run hotel quarantine had, to a significant degree, driven the recent spate of infections across the state.

Speaking to ABC’s breakfast program on Wednesday, Andrews apologised for the failing, conceding the buck stops with him.

“I apologise for the position that we find ourselves in. I’m accountable as the leader of our state,” he said.

NOW READ: ‘Wait and see’: Family businesses hopeful as border closure cleaves Albury-Wodonga in two

NOW READ: “Frustration, disappointment and sadness”: Business owners reel as Victoria’s second wave rips through COVID-19 recovery

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