NEWS
06/08/2020 11:26 AM AEST

Melbourne's Multicultural Businesses 'Very Worried' As Stage 4 Restrictions Kick In

"I’m going to have to see whether it’s worth my while to keep it open or close it."

Melbourne’s stringent Stage 4 COVID-19 restrictions will be felt across the region, but they’ll really be a “kick in the guts” for multicultural businesses that are already operating on the edge, says one restaurant owner. 

Amit Tuteja has been running Indian restaurant Desi Dhaba in the city’s central business district (CBD) since 2008 after coming to Australia from India in 1988 as an international student. Now, as Victoria enters its toughest battle against the coronavirus, he’s uncertain whether his restaurant will survive. 

Restrictions announced on Sunday include a curfew from 8pm to 5am that will be in place for six weeks. As of midnight last night, restaurants can offer only takeaway or delivery. 

“We are very worried. We are in the CBD, which is becoming a ghost town now,” Tuteja told HuffPost Australia. “I’m going to have to see whether it’s worth my while to keep it open or close it.” 

Desi Dhaba/Amit Tuteja
Desi Dhaba restaurant owner Amit Tuteja (left) and one of his staff members work on placing signs to guide customers.

The new Stage 4 restrictions announced Sunday include the 8 pm to 5 am curfew that will be in place for six weeks, barring the city’s nearly five million people from leaving their houses except for work or to receive or give care.

Production at meatworks will be cut by a third, and workers will be kitted out in protective gear. Construction will also be scaled back.

Supermarkets will remain open, along with restaurant takeaway and delivery services, but many other retail outlets will be closed. 

Tuteja said his restaurant’s main trade occurs between 6pm and midnight. However, “people can’t even pick up takeaway from 7:45pm because you need to be home by 8pm”. 

“We lose,” he said. “More than half my trade’s going to be gone.” 

Though his business is listed on food delivery platforms like UberEats, DoorDash and Menulog, Tuteja said these services take a “huge chunk in commission,” meaning “it’s still not a lot that you get” at the end. 

“We have our delivery drivers, but we can’t compete with UberEats and DoorDash. They are able to deliver a lot quicker,” he explained. “I can’t have six or seven drivers sitting in the restaurant doing nothing, and they are also getting paid by the hour.” 

A Victoria man travelled 32 kilometres last month to pick up butter chicken at Desi Dhaba. He was fined $1,652 for flouting stay-at-home orders, a misfortune that the restaurant has turned into an actual selling point for delivery. 

Desi Dhaba has been operating with a skeleton staff since the coronavirus pandemic hit Victoria earlier this year, and it needs at least three employees on hand to operate.

“More than 75% of staff are sitting at home with nothing to do,” Tuteja said. 

Though government benefits like JobKeeper are available, he said it’s not feasible because employees must “put in the hours” to be eligible, “but what hours do I give them”? 

“On top of that, most of the people who work in our hospitality industry are either backpackers or [international] students. They’re not even eligible for any grants,” he said.

Murat Aytac Dokuzelma, owner of Footscray Halal Meats, is also concerned about his business’s future amid the Stage 4 restrictions.

“I’m stressed. I’m trying to run my business and keep it open. But for a small business like us, are we going to survive after those six weeks?” he told SBS.

Not standing down any of his six staff, he’s also aware that prices will escalate as meatworks and abattoirs run at a third of their usual capacity. 

“Our customers have been very loyal over the last 20 years… I can’t put my prices up, I can’t do that to them,” he said. “That means I’m not going to make a profit for the next six weeks.” 

Tuteja said the meatworker restrictions have already affected his restaurant. “I just had a call from my butcher yesterday saying as of Thursday, things like chicken are going to be up a dollar a kilo,” Tuteja said. “And if I put prices up to resolve this cost, well, I can’t afford to. The customers won’t buy because they will look at other cheaper options.”

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews announced $5,000 payments for affected businesses and flagged more announcements over penalties, enforcements and education on Tuesday.

Schools will move to remote learning from Wednesday. 

With additional reporting by Reuters.