Businesses driven to wall as Omicron chaos fuels staff shortages and hesitant customers

Brendan Rees

The fast-spreading Omicron wave is causing headaches for hospitality owners in the CBD with some labelling the crisis as “bad as lockdown”.

Many eateries and restaurants told CBD News they were fighting on two fronts to stay afloat including staff shortages due to COVID-19 infections or having to isolate as close contacts as well as consumer spending plunging as hesitant Victorians avoided public places. 

Georgia Mackie, owner of Seedlings Café in Flinders Lane and Little Collins St, said she was forced to get back into the kitchen despite being on maternity leave after her two chefs had to self-isolate for a week as they awaited the results of their PCR tests. 

“I’m juggling to look after a 14-week-old baby and working to cover our chefs. I’ve had friends and family come in to walk him around the city in between feeds and everything,” she said.

“Everyone is desperate for staff. It’s as bad as lockdown, I think in the city with people being told to work from home, it’s as bad as it’s ever been.”

“We’re doing what we can to stay open and have some income come in through the door,” she said, adding she hoped the government would offer fresh financial support schemes.

“Our trade is actually worse than what it was in lockdown but there’s no support available.” 

“It’s so quiet, we’re doing a couple of hundred dollars a day. It’s just nuts. We’re getting some tourists who are still around and hopefully we have some people around for the tennis, but we mostly rely on corporate workers.”

Caroline Tuohy, owner of Café Segovia at the Block Place, said business had been stretched so thin that she reduced her opening hours due to staff shortages.

“I lost four of my staff within a day because of close contacts,” she said.

“You can lose people rapidly; everybody gets knocked out.” 

She said there was “literally no-one” to hire. “People go ‘what about giving school kids a go?’ I do employ school kids, three of my staff members are single parents, one of my staff is a mature age student. I do hire quite a large diversity of different people.”

Ms Tuohy said the situation was “very stressful” and she was worried about keeping up with expenses. “You’re stealing from Peter to pay Paul. It’s a challenging time. The main question is when this is going to get any better?”

 

 

One of her supervisors Ali Pajouhandeh (pictured above), who had been lucky enough to avoid the Omicron wave, said all staff had banded together to support the business, adding “we try our best to work as a team”.

Scott Assender, owner of the Mint Bar and Restaurant on William St, and 100 Burgers Group chain, said trade was “way quieter than normal” because of the Omicron chaos.

“Normally we run at about at this time of year 50-60 per cent of trade normally, but not 30,” he said.

“We’re pretty resilient so I think we’ll get through, it’s a challenge.”

John Vakalis, owner of the Journal Café, said revenue was down 80 to 90 per cent of normal trade as more people avoided crowds. “The issue is there’s not enough people in the city. It’s very frustrating and I’m a bit concerned to be honest,” he said.

Collins St Precinct Group spokeswoman Charlyne Manshanden said the hospitality, retail and leisure industries had suffered a “huge impact,” and needed help to “recover, rebuild resilience and thrive”.

“The Collins Street Precinct Group welcomes any additional financial support from the state or federal government that will assist our members and help them bounce back from the devastation caused by the pandemic,” she said.

City of Melbourne councillor and small business portfolio lead, Jason Chang, said many businesses were finding it “hard to make ends meet”.

“They’re paying deferred payments and trying to cover their debt. It’s a huge struggle for small businesses.”

The state government has extended the commercial tenancy relief scheme to allow small to medium businesses experiencing hardship by coronavirus to defer rent.

Innes Willox, chief executive of the national employer association Ai Group, said one potential solution to staff shortages was to temporarily grant work rights to all visa holders currently in Australia to allow them to work in the areas of “acute need” •

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