Shop still open? What you can, can’t and shouldn’t do when trading through coronavirus


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread in Australia, and around the world, the situation for businesses trying to trade through the crisis is constantly changing.

At the start of this week the federal government announced an unprecedented range of trading restrictions as other countries around the world, including the UK, Germany, Italy, France and New Zealand shut down all non-essential activity.

No one knows how long this new normal is going to last, or what the medium term implications for small business owners will be.

But for those retailers still trading, or deciding whether to close up shop, SmartCompany has compiled some guidance to help you make informed decisions.

Can my retail shop keep trading?

UPDATE: The list of restricted shops is changing from 12:00AM Thursday, 26 March. You can access the full and expanded list, as well as an explanation of what might be next, here.

That depends on what sort of retail business you run. The federal government has so far stopped short of a full scale ban on all non-essential business activities, instead agreeing to a limited list of restricted businesses.

These include:

  • Pubs, registered and licensed clubs (excluding bottle shops attached to these venues), hotels (excluding accommodation);
  • Gyms and indoor sporting venues;
  • Cinemas, entertainment venues, casinos, and night clubs; and
  • Religious gatherings, places of worship or funerals (other than small groups with social distancing).

Restaurants and cafes, meanwhile, have been restricted to takeaway and home delivery operations only.

Retailers that are not included in this list are free to trade, while businesses that operate across multiple categories, and one or more of which are listed as restricted operations, must only trade those parts of their business that are not restricted.

For example, a pub with an adjoining bottle shop must close its dine-in and bar operations, but is still able to trade its bottle shop, and can also open for home delivery orders.

Shopping centers remain open, and general retail goods and services businesses are under no requirement to stop trading.

These measures also apply to outdoor operations associated with any businesses listed as restricted. That means your gym or indoor sporting venue can’t get around the rules by switching to outdoor operations.

As countries around the world progressively tighten their social controls, including full scale non essential activity shutdowns in New Zealand, the UK, Germany, Italy and France, it is looking increasingly likely Australia will pursue the same course of action.

Over the weekend, Victoria and New South wales were talked down from pursuing those measures themselves, opting in the end for scaled-back restrictions. But as the spread of coronavirus continues in Australia, there is no guarantee broader restrictions won’t be implemented in the coming weeks.

Takeaway: If you’re on the list, close up shop. If you aren’t sure whether your retail business classifies, the government has advised firms to exercise common sense, which means you should consider closing until you can clarify.

How long do I have to close?

The federal government has advised retailers to expect trading restrictions to last for at least six months, although that timeline is subject to change.

The Victorian Government has advised trading restrictions in the state will last until at least April 13, although this is also subject to change.

State and territory governments are responsible for legislating and administering retail trade restrictions, but to date the federal government has coordinated Australia’s policy response in conjunction with the premiers and chief ministers.

It’s possible that current “stage one” trading restrictions could be lifted, in part or full, within the next six months, or they could be strengthened and extended further.

Federal and state governments have said they will update the public on any further changes based on regularly updated medical advice.

Takeaway: It’s looking like at least six months, but watch this space because that could change. 

Do I have to change anything?

Retailers on the restricted list (see above) have been forced to close, while cafes and restaurants must only trade takeaway and home delivery operations.

Beyond this, all other retail businesses are required to maintain social distancing guidelines outlined by the federal government.

Current social distancing measures require at least four square metres to be available for every person in a given area (like a shop). That means if your shop is 50sqm its maximum capacity is 12 people — although it’s likely to be much lower than this given the floor space stock and other store infrastructure occupies.

Patrons should be able to keep a 1.5 metre distance from each other at all times, including in checkout queues, change rooms or any other facilities.

It’s worth noting that some business types have been declared essential services, including pharmacies, food shops and healthcare facilities.

Restrictions preventing indoor gatherings of more than 99 people do not apply to these types of operations.

Takeaway: Retailers that remain open are required to comply with social distancing measures.

What other measures should I take?

Australian health authorities have issued a range of advice for retailers and other organisations operating public facilities and commercial operations.

Under Workplace Health and Safety Laws, employers have an obligation to ensure reasonable steps are taken to manage health and safety risks, including implementing risk control measures.

Basically, that means doing nothing is not just irresponsible, it could also be negligent from a legal perspective.

There are lots of basic hygiene measures businesses can take, including ensuring stores are regularly cleaned and disinfected (surfaces, product racks, counters and stock rooms, for example).

Ensuring hand sanitiser with an alcohol content of at least 60% is available in-store for staff and patrons is also advised. If sanitiser is not available, a portable hand washing station should be set up with soap.

Many retailers are also putting up signage within their stores, warning customers about the COVID-19 pandemic and providing guidance about what their businesses are doing to curtail the spread.

This can assist with reassuring customers, but also setting expectations about any product buying limits you’ve instituted, and how you expect customers to treat staff (with respect!).

Retail workers union the SDA has also asked shop owners to avoid asking staff to handle customer bags, and instead hand out bags free of charge.

Takeaway: Not taking reasonable health and hygiene measures is likely negligent, meaning your business should be changing its operations.

Should I ban all cash transactions?

Many retailers that are still trading are asking their patrons to pay using contactless options, and you might like to consider doing the same.

A spokesperson for the Reserve Bank told SmartCompany the bank is advising business operators that a banknote is just like any other surface, and therefore practicing good hygiene is important when handling cash.

The RBA advises business owners to follow the advice set out by the Department of Health, including washing your hands and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

Takeaway: Make sure you have processes in place if you and your employees are still handling cash. 

What are other businesses doing?

The bottom line is retailers across the country, and indeed the world, are scrambling to work out what the COVID-19 pandemic means for them.

Many firms are simply shutting up shop, either because they’ve been forced to, or because they’ve deemed it wise.

Jewellery retailer Michael Hill decided to close more than 200 stores in Australia and New Zealand on Tuesday, citing an inability to easily comply with new social distancing measures in its stores.

But for many business owners it’s not that simple; bills like rent don’t go away because your shop isn’t open.

Retailers in industries and categories deemed essential (petrol stations, pharmacies, supermarkets etc.) are ramping up customer and staff protections in recent days.

Woolworths is installing plexiglass screens to protect staff members serving customers, while also marking its floors to designate safe standing spaces in queues.

Other independent retailers in the cafe and restaurant industries are doing their best to switch to delivery and takeaway only models.

Some are going to extraordinary lengths: Miss Bliss Cafe owner Jacqui Tombas has developed a take home meal menu for her customers in Queensland and has now started personally delivering orders.

With e-commerce likely to be the way forward for many retailers in the coming months, an uptick in the number of firms establishing or investing in their websites is also expected in the coming weeks.

Takeaway: Many firms are simply closing, and those that aren’t are getting creative to protect customers, staff and their bottom lines.

What support is available?

The federal government has unveiled $189 billion in economic stimulus related to the coronavirus outbreak in recent weeks, much of it aimed at supporting small to medium retail shops.

Programs range from grants to low-interest loans and an extension of the instant asset write-off.

SmartCompany has been covering the policy changes as they’ve happened, and we have a range of online resources that outline what’s on offer, when it’s on offer, and how much is on offer.

Check out our most recent coverage on the latest federal government ‘stimulus’ package, and our state-by-state rundown of available state and territory initiatives.

Takeaway: Government support is on offer, so check out our coverage for more details about what it means for you.

NOW READ: Letting entrepreneurs borrow against their super could soften the blow of coronavirus

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