Businesses beg for more help

Moe, owner of Sugar Buns, said the government hasn't done enough to support small businesses during the latest lockdown. Picture: STEWART CHAMBERS 244468_06

By Danielle Kutchel

The lockdown pill is getting harder and harder to swallow for local businesses.

At Berwick’s New York Barbers, there’s no buzz of razors right now. Unable to open for haircuts, the room is quiet.

Owner Mario Fallace has kept the barber’s attached diner open for coffee and hotdogs, but even those sales are few and far between, he said.

“It won’t pay all the outgoings,” he said.

After five lockdowns, he said it’s getting more and more difficult for small businesses to reopen.

Each time, Mr Fallace said, was like starting from the very beginning again.

His losses over the duration of the pandemic are around $700,000.

A Berwick icon, Mr Fallace said he’s not going anywhere – but he worries other businesses won’t be so fortunate.

“You hear people say, ‘we’re used to it now’, but they’re not business owners. Put yourself in the shoes of a business owner having to start virtually from scratch again every single time,” he said.

The massive performing arts industry has once again been forced to grind to a halt in lockdown, and chairperson of Berwick’s MYP Productions Inc, Carmen Powell, said it’s heartbreaking for both performers and staff.

Staff are finding it harder and harder to stay positive and come up with new creative ways to engage students over Zoom, and students are struggling without having the physical outlet and community of performing to embrace them.

“It is devastating to our business financially, physically, emotionally, everything,” she said.

“Last year we took it on the chin and worked as hard as we could to keep it all there but this is getting exhausting. It’s like running a race and not knowing where the finish line is.

“We’re drained.”

Financially, she said, studios were being pushed to the limit – especially after a year of closures and limited revenue opportunities.

“Even while the doors are closed, those of us that have studios that we rent still have overheads to pay – rent, electricity, paying for the phone to be connected.”

Ms Powell said the government’s support wouldn’t stretch far.

“It’s all well and good to say there are support packages but they don’t cut it. They’re a small slice in a big pie.”

She added the funding packages are not comprehensive enough and were difficult to apply for.

“It should be if your door is shut, here is some financial assistance,” she said.

Like Mr Fallace, she too believes many theatre groups and studios won’t be able to come back this time.

Hospitality has been another big loser over the pandemic, relegated to takeaway service only for much of the last 18 months.

For Moe Grepo, owner of Sugar Buns in Hampton Park, that’s meant a big change to the way he does business.

Ordinarily mainly a dine-in spot, Sugar Buns has pivoted to takeaway coffees, UberEats and Menulog orders.

Every day that he opens, Mr Grepo said, he runs at a loss.

And the government’s business support packages won’t cover his overheads.

Mr Grepo said the government should “tackle the real issues”.

He suggested the government should cover the rent for small businesses and a percentage of staff wages for the duration of the lockdown, which would make a bigger difference for small businesses than the “handout” the government had so far offered.

Mr Grepo hasn’t paid himself in five weeks, and he and his family are living off their savings.

He said the end of lockdown wouldn’t necessarily bring relief for hospitality businesses, with ongoing patron limits continuing to bring pain.

“It’s a kick in the face when we give the government so much money in tax and in return they don’t hear what we actually need,” he said.

On Wednesday 21 July, the State Government announced further support for small businesses and sole traders affected by the extended lockdown.

Automatic top-ups for the extension would be made in coming days.

In a statement, the State Government said that eligible Licensed Hospitality Venue Fund recipients will receive $4200, taking their total payment to $7200, while Business Costs Assistance Program recipients will receive $2800, taking their total grant to $4800.

Newly eligible businesses are welcome to apply for the funding.

The State Government has confirmed with its Federal counterpart that the majority of microbusinesses not registered for GST will be eligible for the Covid-19 Disaster Payment of $600/$375 per seven-day period.

A new round of the Live Performance Support programs, with funding of up to $7000 for presenters and up to $2000 for suppliers, has also been confirmed.

Gembrook MP Brad Battin said his office had been inundated with small businesses begging for help through the latest lockdown.

He criticised the State Government for initially offering businesses less support than they had been given during the last snap lockdown.

“Is it cheaper to run a business today than it was a month ago? Daniel Andrews thinks so,” he said.

Staring down the barrel of the lockdown extension, Mr Grepo pleaded with locals to continue to support hospitality through takeaway food and drinks as much as possible.

Ms Powell asked parents to “stay“ with their child’s extracurricular activity, so they can come out the other side.

And Mr Fallace asked customers to return once lockdown was over.

“Every time we open up again they’re lined up outside. If there’s a plus out of a major negative, that’s the plus,“ he said.

“The fact they can return is the best support customers can give.“