NSW businesses feel the pinch as Omicron concerns drive Christmas cancellations

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Source: Unsplash/Anthony Fomin

COVID-19 restrictions may have eased in New South Wales, but consumers are reluctant to get out and about ahead of the Christmas break. That means things aren’t getting much easier for small businesses.

More than 2500 new COVID-19 cases were recorded in NSW today, amid concerns about the fast-spreading Omicron variant of the virus.

However as of last week, restrictions have eased. Density limits no longer apply at most businesses, and QR-code check-ins and proof of vaccination are no longer required at many.

Masks are also no longer required in most indoor settings, although they are still recommended.

But for small businesses, the eased restrictions haven’t necessarily led to an influx of customers. For one restaurant in Ballina, they’ve actually hampered the Christmas rush.

Keith Williams owns The Tintenbar Teahouse, and is also councillor for Ballina Shire.

On Sunday he shared a tweet saying he was “sitting in [his] empty restaurant … wondering what we do next”.

“People who feel unprotected don’t go out,” he added.

Partly Williams believes this is because of concern about new variants, he tells SmartCompany.

But for the most part, he thinks people simply don’t want to jeopardise their Christmas plans — either by becoming ill themselves, becoming a risk to their family members, or simply having to isolate.

That’s leading them to steer clear of the usual December festivities, he says.

“Nobody wants to isolate for Christmas.”

Sundays are usually The Tintenbar Teahouse’s busiest days, especially in the lead up to Christmas. And Christmas functions that have still gone ahead have been smaller than they might have been in previous years.

One report from the Sydney Morning Herald suggests that as many as one in five restaurant bookings are being cancelled due to a resurgence of COVID-19 cases.

Elsewhere, reports are emerging of businesses struggling due to a lack of staff, as workers are identified as close contacts and forced to stay at home.

Restaurant owners have called for a change in approach in order to better support the recovery of the sector, or for easier access to rapid antigen tests, allowing staff members to receive test results more quickly.

This is a challenge Williams is no stranger to. In September, not long after he was able to re-open the restaurant, his partner — with whom he runs the business — became a close contact of a positive case.

Both had to isolate and they were forced to close the restaurant for the weekend. Now there is always a lingering concern that that could happen again.

For him, the key is for people to feel reassured that they will be safe when they go out. If they don’t feel safe, he says, they simply won’t go.

It may seem contrary to what we’ve been reporting for the past two years, but at this stage some restrictions could actually be beneficial to small businesses.

There is a middle ground between lockdowns and full reopening, Williams says.

“Simple things like the QR codes and the masks I think make people feel safer and make people feel they’re in a controlled environment.”

Reopening with no restrictions at all could be “very damaging in the short term”.

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