Victorian hotel owners and workers are in shock as the Omicron COVID-19 wave sweeps through the state. Many restaurants, pubs and cafes have closed temporarily, reduced their opening hours, or are operating at limited capacity because staff have COVID, are in close contact, or await PCR test results. With most businesses already understaffed, it was not possible to cover shifts at a time many restaurants were relying on to recoup lost revenue from six closures.
“Without a doubt, this situation is more painful than confinement,” explains Zara Madrusan, owner of Bar Margaux, who was forced to cancel the New Year’s festivities due to lack of staff. “We are totally left behind. ‘Personal responsibility’ means the government completely neglects its responsibility to protect this nation and this recovering economy.”
Zara Madrusan, with her partner Michael Madrusan, the owners of Heartbreaker Bar, Everleigh and Bar Margaux feel they have been “totally overlooked”. Photo: Pete Dillon
Pandemic assistance for Victorian businesses has been based on lockdowns or capacity restrictions, none of which are currently in place. But a depleted workforce has put many businesses on “easy foreclosure” without any financial help.
Food businesses forced to close or reduce their opening hours include the newly opened destination of Flinders Lane, Nomad, Port Melbourne’s Ciao Cielo, Fitzroy Drinking Den Black Pearl and Lucy Liu, a city dweller.
A manager of a leading restaurant, preferring to remain anonymous, said: “I never thought I would want another lockdown. That’s how serious it is.”
Jason Jones has closed his Le Petit Marche branch at Entrecote in Prahran. “For the first time in two years, I’m at breaking point,” he says. “It has never been so hard.”
The Victoria area is particularly hard hit, with staff shortages exacerbated by a lack of affordable housing rubbing up against a seasonal influx of vacationers desperate to dine out. “Last summer in Lorne was bad, with hospital staff sleeping in their cars or on the beach,” says Kate Bartholomew, co-owner of Coda Lorne. “This summer is even worse. We have chefs coming to Melbourne every day.”
Fiona Maurer works for The Sharp Group, which has venues on the Bellarine Peninsula, including Jack Rabbit and Flying Brick Cider Co.. “I can’t blame them, they’re here on vacation and half the restaurants are closed. But we’re understaffed and it’s taking longer at the door to explain the situation.”
Kindness is essential, many places signaling the impatience and rudeness of the guests. “Half the guests get it and are amazing,” Bartholomew says. “The other half are furious that the city is closed.”
“Half of the guests got it and are amazing. The other half are furious that the city is closed.”
Many customers turn to online platforms to complain about slow service or perceived issues. “In many cases, the criticisms are one-sided and do not take into account the examiner’s own actions, which often include abusive or authorized behavior and expect nothing for nothing,” says Jason Chang of Calia in the city and Chadstone.
The current uncertainty – which comes on top of two years of turmoil – weighs on operations and finances. Byron Barrowclough of Moorabbin Wilbury and Sons gastro pub was forced to close just before Christmas and is unsure of when it will reopen.
“There are a lot more unknowns than known right now and it’s a scary thing,” he says. “It’s a huge risk spending money to reopen when you might have to close a business in two days. It’s literally, ‘Fingers crossed, I hope we survive. “”
The sentiment of customers is also mild. “People are more careful when they go out,” he says. “We have a lot of people in their 30s and 40s and catching COVID doesn’t just affect them – they worry about their families and careers.”
“Victorians have been conditioned for 22 months to worry about the number of cases,” said Wes Lambert, CEO of the Restaurant Industry Association. “It is important for the government to recognize that consumers vote with their feet and that the hospitality industry will continue to need government support until consumer confidence returns.” On staffing, he said, “the Victorian and federal governments must work together to address critical staff shortages issues in several industries and find solutions, such as speeding up the return of fully vaccinated foreign workers. “
Reiji Honor of Camberwell Hibiki Cafe had always planned to close for New Years, but he’s nervous about reopening next week. “I have a person who decided today that it was too hard and to go back to Malaysia,” he said. “I feel for everyone with a temporary visa because they are in limbo. For me, even losing a person is stressful.”
With no one to take over, Honor will line up to do the dishes. “It doesn’t bother me but it’s not ideal,” he says. “The excitement of the kitchen, the creativity is slowly fading. There is too much else going on.”