Victorian businesses are still waiting for payments from the previous two lockdowns, let alone lockdown 5.0

Burger Masters owner Jay Khawari. Source: supplied.

Businesses in Victoria look set to receive additional support payments from the state government, after entering the first day of a five-day snap lockdown this morning.

However, there are some businesses still waiting on the money promised last time the state was plunged into lockdown.

In a press conference today, Andrews announced a $200 million support package for businesses, with payments being automatically distributed to those who were eligible during the last lockdown.

He suggested payments could be made before the end of this lockdown, and businesses will receive a top-up of either $2000 or $3000.

It follows the announcement on Thursday afternoon that the entire state was entering lockdown, in response to a COVID-19 cluster linked to a team of removalists who travelled to Melbourne from New South Wales.

It means all non-essential businesses have been forced to close, and hospitality businesses are again only able to offer takeaway services. The state government has provided a list of which businesses are considered ‘essential’ under the rules and which are not, available here.

The five reasons to leave home are back in place: exercising for a maximum of two hours per day; shopping for food and other essentials; care or caregiving responsibilities; for work or education, if it can’t be done from home; and to get a COVID-19 vaccine, at the closest location possible.

For small businesses, the lockdown comes as a blow. That’s particularly true for those in regional areas where there are currently no cases.

Andrews said there will be support payments for both businesses and individuals. However, business owners are still waiting for the full details to be released, as some continue to wait on payments from earlier lockdowns. 

SmartCompany has heard several reports from businesses that have not yet received the funding they were entitled to from the last lockdown, which ended more than six weeks ago.

In a statement directed at Andrews, Chrissie Maus, general manager of the Chapel Street Precinct, a group representing some 2,200 small businesses in Melbourne’s iconic shopping district, said some small business owners are still waiting on grants from the lockdown over Valentine’s Day weekend in February. 

“Our business owners are at their wit’s end,” she said.

“Maybe if you took time to speak to some of the 2,200 small businesses who are hanging by a thread you would expedite these payments so they could afford to pay their rent and put food on the tables for their staff and families.”

At today’s press conference, Victorian Minister for Jobs, Innovation and Trade Martin Pakula conceded there are some 22,000 businesses “whose applications are still being processed because more details are being sought”.

“Not every application is as simple or as straightforward as each other,” he said.

“It gets on top of you”

David Strange is the owner of Metung Hotel in the Gippsland Lakes. He says his business still hasn’t received any support relating to losses from the first lockdown.

What he has received is a WorkCover bill, which he says has “gone up through the roof”, he tells SmartCompany. If it’s not paid on time, the business will face fines.

The government funds haven’t materialised yet, but the bills don’t stop coming.

“It just gets on top of you,” he says.

As far as Strange can tell, there’s no reason the funds haven’t come through yet as his business is eligible for the payments. 

“We’re a pub, we’re certainly under the turnover limit, we were locked down,” he says. 

Yesterday Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested a “more simple and streamlined” way to approach grant funding for businesses in lockdown — something that could come into effect automatically if a lockdown stretches for two weeks or more.

But, again, the details are not clear on this yet. And if Victoria’s lockdown is indeed just five days, it won’t matter anyway.

For Strange, it’s frustrating to see Andrews and other politicians pledging further support when he’s just not seeing it.

“They get up there and beat their chests and say ‘we’re going to look after you’, but they don’t,” he says.

“The Labor government is supposed to be there for the working class,” he adds.

“Yet we had casuals who didn’t earn any money for ten days … they’re neglected.”

“I just felt helpless”

Strange says his business is strong, and while his frustration at the situation is palpable, he says he will survive this lockdown. That’s not the case for everyone.

Having previously operated as a food truck, Burger Masters opened its first restaurant in Collingwood just two months ago. Now, owner Jay Khawari is facing his second lockdown.

Jay’s initial application for the support package was rejected because his business’ ANZSIC code was listed incorrectly.

“I’m not sure how that code got designated to me in the first place,” he tells SmartCompany.

He has since corrected the issue and re-applied, and is now waiting for assessment. But all of this takes time — time he says he doesn’t have.

“Now there’s another lockdown and I’m already two months overdue on my rent,” he explains.

The grant will only just cover the rent anyway, he adds, let alone other mounting business costs.

“We’re not sure where we’re headed, and we’re not sure we’re going to be open after this lockdown.”

For Khawari’s part, he believes Andrews and the state government have good intentions. But there is “so much red tape and so much confusion”, and small business owners that are stretched to the limit often don’t have time to navigate it successfully.

Hearing the lockdown announcement yesterday, “I just felt helpless,” Khawari says.

“It’s just sad times really, it’s hard to put it in words.”

“They’re laughing at us”

Elsewhere, Katy Georgiou, owner of Chapel Street institution Caffé E Cucina, says she has received the grant funding related to the last lockdown this week. But, in the grand scheme of things, while any money is welcome, it didn’t cover much.

If it was $100,000, she could deal with the delay, she tells SmartCompany with a laugh. But she estimates the $7000 will cover her electricity and gas bills, which is the tip of the iceberg of the costs she needs to cover. 

It means Georgiou is also not filled with confidence at the promise of further government support.

“It’s like they’re laughing at us,” she says.

“Unless it’s a JobKeeper situation it doesn’t help.”

Caffé E Cucina’s biggest outgoings are rent and wages, Georgiou explains. But then there are suppliers of food, wine and takeaway containers that need to be paid, as well as WorkCover, superannuation and insurance.

The kitchen fans need cleaning, the gas bottles for the heaters need replacing, and the linen needs to be laundered. And the price of food is going up too.

“Everything adds up,” she says.

“I just can’t tell you the expenses .. it’s never-ending.”

That said, all three business owners point to the support they’ve seen from their communities. Khawari has been offered free marketing services and support from fellow local business owners, for example. 

Georgiou has launched right into takeaway mode, and is already fielding orders from locals who have “become our friends”.

She’s anticipating, and preparing, for a two-week lockdown. But, all things considered, she’s relatively cheery about it.

“I didn’t stress about it last night,” she says.

“I’m just going to do what I do … we’re sort of experts now.”

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