A wave of excitement rolled over Australia this week when it was announced pubs, clubs, restaurants and cafes will be allowed to reopen as extensive testing has shown the spread of coronavirus has slowed sharply.
For a split second it felt things may be getting back to normal. But for the hospitality, events and arts industries, the first round of easing restrictions means “very little will change.”
The state of New South Wales from Friday will allow cafes and restaurants to seat 10 patrons at a time and will allow pubs and clubs with restaurants attached to also open their doors - as long as there is only 10 customers.
The state is the epicentre of COVID-19 in Australia, with about 45% of the country’s confirmed cases and deaths. The restriction moves are in line with a three-step plan to relax lockdown measures outlined by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, which would see nearly 1 million people return to work by July.
But does this “easing of restrictions” mean things are magically on the ups for our hospitality industry and we can go back to our favourite watering hole or have a cheeky play on the pokies?
Gaming facilities are reportedly not opening and pubs can only serve drinks with food.
While NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro said the reopening announcement will be welcome news for country-town pubs, city venues tell us they will likely not reopen at all.
“It will mean very little change for us,” Co-Owner / Founder of Mary’s Group Kenny Graham told HuffPost Australia.
Graham and his business partner Jake Smyth own nine venues, including Sydney’s iconic live music establishment The Lansdowne Hotel, but they will not reopen closed venues for now as there is no way to keep up with the bills.
“How can a venue possibly survive on 10 customers? All it will mean is that a handful of people don’t have to leave immediately after they collect their food,” he said of the restaurants he’s managed to keep open, like Mary’s CBD and Mary’s in Newtown.
“For a lucky few, it may mean they can sit with a friend and enjoy a cold beer and a burger or a schnitty whilst looking at different walls.”
The Emotional Toll
Graham described the past few months as the toughest he’s ever faced. The Mary’s Group bosses were forced to lay off more than 200 staff and sat each employee down personally for those heart wrenching conversations.
“Putting people’s futures, both financial and emotional, into turmoil is not an easy thing to do or watch unfold. It’s been confronting, forcing us to look at every aspect of our business and personal life,” he said.
“Watching a world come together and become, dare we say, humble, has been quite pleasant. We get to reimagine the world, how we can be better, employers, partners, mothers, fathers, human beings.”
While Graham sees the silver lining, the anxiety for small businesses right now is very serious.
“More businesses will go under, unemployment rising, consumer confidence falling through the floor,” he said
“Government bailouts may band aid the excessive pain right now, but this money will have to be repaid in taxes at some point. The less money the consumer has in their pocket when the doors reopen, the longer this economic hangover will last.”
Just How Useful Is JobKeeper For Businesses And Staff?
Morrison’s so-called JobKeeper program involves the employer fronting $1,500 per fortnight to each staff member. The federal government will payback the business down the track.
It’s a strategy Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said is worth $130 billion over the next six months.
But there are complications.
“There are a lot of non-resident staff who have been left hanging out to dry, without support or a means or ability to get home,” Graham explained.
“The figure of $130 billion can very quickly be reduced to around $90 billion if you look at how many people actually signed up and then the tax that is being paid back on it.”
While Mary’s Group has engaged the program for eligible staff, Graham pointed out that small businesses have to “fund it up front and then pay super on any hours worked” meaning the arrangement “was quite simply unaffordable.”
Of the 900,000 businesses that originally expressed interest in JobKeeper, only half have signed up, leading many to label the system as too confusing or unattainable.
“We were then made to effectively become Centrelink by becoming the processing plant for JobKeeper, at our expense,” Graham added.
Where To Now For Our Favourite Restaurants And Venues?
In Graham’s eyes this pandemic created an economic tsunami and the hospitality industry was standing on the beach. His office uses this analogy when trying to debrief and believes “it’s still to reach those standing on the hill top.”
“Our industry will never be the same, not for a long time,” he said.
Adapting will be key, Graham stressed, especially when it comes to consumer expectation of what dining out will be like post-pandemic.
“High-end restaurants and ‘great service’ seem a distant memory for the time being,” he said.
“We think about reimagining what our business looks like and how we can continue to create experiences, fun and an outlet for our customers. Poverty breeds creativity.”
What Can We Expect On Friday?
With different states and territories taking on the federal government’s ‘Stage One’ plan at their own pace, things will look different across Australia on Friday.
With Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner urging Territorians to head to the pub for a “beer and parmie”, NSW is not quite there yet.
Co-Owner of Young Henrys, a Sydney brewer and distiller, Dan Hampton predicted the new measures will only assist a small amount of venues he works with.
“I’d say a portion of them will choose to keep their current business model until the next stage,” he said. “It’s great to get some clarity though.”
So, don’t expect your favourite restaurant to be open for dining in, warned Richard Holden, Professor of Economics at UNSW Business School.
“The NSW rules are still going to require the four square metre rule for restaurants,” he said.
“For someone that’s running a restaurant with a capacity of 50 people, it may not make sense to have the staff required to run the restaurant and only see 10 people at a time and have that long turn around of cleaning between sittings.
“For some places it might mean opening some tables, maybe the outdoor tables.”
Although it might be financially viable for bigger venues to stick to takeaway, Holden said, Friday’s changes are a “sign of better news” on the horizon and when it comes to a timeline on Stage Two, he added, “we’ll have to wait and see.”