Popular neighbourhoods in Melbourne, famous for their cafes and eateries, should be heaving with crowds these days.
Instead, Smith Street in Collingwood, Nelson Place in Williamstown and even our Greek strip in Eaton Mall, Oakleigh, are eerily deserted.
There seems to be no end to the pandemic as the number of cases every day is multiplying and the virus has now entered nearly every home, impacting people’s social and professional lives.
The hospitality industry is once again at the forefront, suffering the consequences of this escalating situation, with the arrival of the Omicron variant sweeping across the country.
Restaurants, cafes and bars have been forced to close temporarily, for 24 hours or more, or are operating on reduced hours or with a limited capacity, because members of the staff have tested positive, are ‘close contacts’ or are still waiting for test results.
With most businesses already suffering from staff shortages, the temporary absence of even one employee is very hard to accommodate, creating more difficulties at a time when most business owners were expecting to make up for the huge losses they experienced during the prolonged lockdowns of the last two years.
Neos Kosmos spoke with several owners and staff members of restaurants and cafes in the Greek community, who confirm the stark reality of the situation.
Though they did not want their details published, they were eager to describe the challenges they face in the post-lockdown era as they shift to hybrid ways of working, constantly on the alert, and prepared to adapt to the ever-evolving circumstances.
“There is no going back to the life we knew. The situation in the restaurant business, as in our entire lives, has changed irreversibly. The sooner we understand and accept it, the better for all of us,” a Greek restaurant owner in a central Melbourne suburb told Neos Kosmos, after being forced to close for a day as a precautionary measure when an employee felt unwell and was tested along with the rest of the staff.
“There is a lot of instability. Costs for supplies are out of control and are constantly changing so that you can’t even calculate your basic budget,” he adds.
With no visible signs of improvement or even stabilisation, optimism is now declining amongst business owners and workers of the sector.
Everyone agrees however that opening their businesses -even with limitations- is “clearly preferable” to the takeaway service they had to adapt to during the lockdowns, which forced many restaurants and cafes out of business.
There is no government funding to support the businesses at the moment, as in theory they are free to function, which means they have to fend for themselves.
The lack of staff, however, often makes it impossible to operate, leading many businesses to close without any financial assistance.
The Restaurant and Catering Industry Association is calling on state governments to take action and provide solutions.
“People have been conditioned for 22 months to worry about case numbers,” says Wes Lambert, chief executive of the Restaurant Industry Association.
“It is important that the government recognises that the hospitality industry will continue to need government support until consumer confidence returns,” he said, adding that the state and federal governments need to work together to solve critical staff shortage problems in multiple industries and come up with solutions such as accelerating the return of fully vaccinated overseas workers.