The city’s small businesses have breathed a sigh of relief this week after Sydney reopened from its 106-day lockdown, but many shop owners contend that there is a long road back to normality ahead.
With NSW surpassing 70 per cent double-dose vaccinations last week, fully vaccinated Sydneysiders were permitted a multitude of new freedoms, including travelling to any part of Greater Sydney, allowing up to 10 visitors in their homes and returning to pubs and restaurants.
Taylor’s rooftop in Pitt Street welcomed back patrons this week after being forced to close during the lockdown.
The reopening was welcomed by Nick Maglis, the owner of Redfern’s Fernside Coffee Shoppe, who had to pivot to a takeaway and delivery business model during lockdown.
“We had to decrease our trading hours because the beginning and end of the day were very quiet so it was pointless for us to be open,” Maglis tells City Hub.
“Thankfully I have not reduced my staff at all … and we’re back to normal hours, so it’s just the preparation of getting everything cleaned up, dusted off and ready to get back out there again.”
Maglis – like many others in the hospitality industry – has been troubled by dwindling business in the past 18 months. The closure of the Surry Hills Shopping Village and the working from home revolution saw a sharp decline in foot traffic through Redfern, and spelt real trouble for Fernside’s survival.
“Some days we were doing less than half our usual turnover,” Maglis says.
“There was nobody around, so we’re not getting the workers coming in here getting their coffees, snacks or sandwiches … [and] a lot of the locals are being asked to stay indoors and not leave unless it’s necessary, that impacts as well.”
During lockdown, the NSW Government introduced the JobSaver payment to provide cash flow support and retain employees. Businesses that could prove a 30 per cent fortnightly decline in turnover from 18 July 2021 received equivalent to 40 per cent of their weekly payroll.
“Without [JobSaver] I don’t think we would have survived,” Maglis says. “I wouldn’t have been able to pay all the bills, pay all the staff’s wages … it’s helped me keep my doors open and keep the staff on as well.”
Further COVID-19 support is on its way for the hospitality industry this summer, with NSW Planning and Public Spaces Minister Rob Stokes declaring that the government would be “taking emergency measures” to revive the restaurants, bars and cafés across the inner-city. Part of the reforms would include expanding last year’s al fresco reforms to prioritise outdoor, naturally ventilated spaces as new or extended hospitality venues.
City of Sydney councillors last month unanimously supported a motion that would transform a series of inner-city lanes and underused space to lend further support to businesses post-pandemic. Under the plans, new bars, dining areas and laneway art programs would be supported by council to inject new life into the city’s nighttime culture and hospitality venues.
In partnership with the state government, the city has also begun its $43.5 million project to create greater space for outdoor dining and physical distancing. Last month the first section of the George Street South pedestrian boulevard was unveiled, which has created wider spaces for walking and for businesses to operate.
“Helping the city centre revitalisation by bringing workers back to the city, opening up retail outlets and attracting visitors to our city streets is a vital step in Sydney’s economic recovery,” Business Sydney Executive Director Paul Nicolaou said.
But despite the measures being taken to revive the Sydney economy, there is a belief that it may be a while before the inner-city will return to business as usual.
“The people come back reluctantly after lockdown,” Maglis says. “It took quite a while for the people to come back into the offices, so it was actually a very slow, gradual increase after the lockdown of last year, and I’m suspecting something similar will happen this year as well.”
With the state now predominantly vaccinated against COVID-19, the government has begun their trial of vaccine passports in areas of regional NSW, which will allow people to simultaneously check into a venue and confirm their vaccination status. Customer Services Minister Victor Dominello has described the passport trial as “seamless”, and hopes that the program can be launched to the rest of NSW as early as October 18.
Despite doubts about a swift return to normality, Maglis is relieved that he can start welcoming customers back into his café.
“We need to start getting the money coming back in and paying our bills,” Maglis says.
“[To] get back on our feet would be a positive thing.”
Restaurant bookings have risen 253 per cent since NSW’s roadmap to freedom was announced.
Hospitality across the inner-city reopens with density limits for up to 20 fully vaccinated people per booking, with those either partially vaccinated or unvaccinated only able to access takeaway options. Staff will be required to ask patrons for their proof of vaccination, which can be accessed through Medicare, MyGov and the Australian Immunisation Register, and must be displayed before being served.
“You may get some people, some customers getting agitated about getting asked for proof of vaccination in order to sit down and dine, so I have a bit of trepidation around that,” Maglis says.
“70 per cent of our dining customers are regulars … so once they show it, we know who they are, they don’t need to show it again … it’s now the random walk-ins that we get, that we’ll have to be asking them, so some of the staff are feeling a little bit anxious about it.”
From December 1, it is expected that there will be no limits on people in hospitality settings, however, density limits will still apply. Singing and dancing will be permitted, while drinking may be seated or standing both indoors and outdoors.