Sydney businesses await extended lockdown support as confusion reigns

Northern Beaches

Sydney's Northern Beaches.

The New South Wales government is still ‘considering’ providing additional support for small businesses affected by the ongoing lockdown in Greater Sydney, but with no further announcements today, delays and uncertainty are causing frustration in the community.

Yesterday, NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet suggested there may be additional support available for businesses with annual turnover of less than $75,000.

But, in today’s press conference, Premier Gladys Berejiklian did not expand on this. She did, however, make note of “ongoing” discussions with the federal government with regards to support of some kind.

“All options are on the table as far as we’re concerned,” she said.

“I have to say as far as the Commonwealth is concerned as well.”

It comes as the city records 38 new cases, 17 of which were isolated for the entirety of the time they were infectious, nine who were in isolation for part of the time, and 11 who have been infectious in the community, according to the latest figures from NSW Health.

The Premier also urged employers and businesses to be understanding of employees who have symptoms and have to take time off work.

Any business support would be additional to the $10,000 grants announced last week for businesses that have suffered a ‘significant loss’ as a result of the lockdown. The existing package is estimated to come at a cost of about $1.4 billion.

The package also deferred payroll tax liabilities due in July 2021, and extended the Dine & Discover voucher scheme.

A meaningful amount of support

Now the lockdown has been extended for at least another seven days, there have been calls for more support, and more clarity around what will be available, and when.

In a submission to the state government on Wednesday, industry group Restaurant & Catering Australia (R&CA) laid out a three-point plan to “assist the NSW government in crafting further support”.

It includes waiving payroll tax for the whole first quarter of the financial year and further business grant funding, with all grants increased in value by 50%.

“The extension of the lockdown has meant that the size of the grants available are no longer fit for purpose,” the submission said.

Finally, R&CA called for a rental relief fund, particularly as COVID-19 rules around commercial leases are no longer in effect.

Pre-pandemic data from R&CA’s benchmarking report suggested that, on average, rent made up about 9% of business costs. So, the group called for $15,000 in monthly payments for hospitality businesses.

This would “greatly assist them in covering their rental payments for July,” it said.

Speaking to SmartCompany, Alexi Boyd, interim chief executive of the Council of Small Business Organisations (COSBOA), says the simplest and most efficient way to support businesses is through relieving cash flow challenges — that means cash grants.

“It needs to be a meaningful amount of support and an efficient way of getting it into the hands of small business owners,” she says.

They’re the ones who best know where that money should be spent.

Reports suggest NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet wrote to Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to seek more support for businesses affected by the lockdown, suggesting a JobKeeper-style package to help businesses keep employees on board.

The federal government has, however, again rejected calls to bring back a wage-subsidy package, instead offering payments of up to $500 for people in areas where lockdowns go beyond seven days.

“That was an emergency support payment that had an initial time frame,” Frydenderg said.

“We expected [there] would be further lockdowns and we do have payments available,”

Confusion reigns

However, a lot of the stress for small business owners stems from continuing uncertainty.

“A lot of the problem … is around the confusion of lockdowns and a misunderstanding as to what an essential business is,” she explains.

It’s still not clear what businesses are deemed essential and which are not. NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant again urged consumers only to shop for ‘essential’ goods, but did not clarify exactly what that means for businesses.

“The reason we haven’t defined ‘essential’ is because clearly, people may need blankets, rugs, school shoes, these are the sort of things that are defined as essential,” she said.

“I have confidence the New South Wales committee actually understands what we mean by essential … No browsing,” she added.

This means many businesses are closing, only to see their competitor down the street open and serving customers, Boyd explains.

And, currently, every update from a state Premier or the National Cabinet brings more confusion.

There are always hints of more support, but no clarity as to what that will look like or when it might materialise.

And there’s no continuity between lockdown rules and restrictions between — and even within — states.

“The messaging needs to be clear to help us to plan for what’s happening next week, let alone in the next six to 12 months,” Boyd says.

It comes back, again, to something COSBOA has been calling for for some time — a national standardised approach to COVID-19 outbreaks, and guaranteed support when lockdowns are unavoidable.

“The effect of another week of lockdown in Sydney is huge. It’s monumental,” Boyd says.

“It will definitely be the end of some businesses.”

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