A German historian may have summed it up best.
The weirdest part of living through the #COVID19 pandemic is this strange mixture of normalcy and emergency that we’re all experiencing. I constantly feel like I’m either over- or underreacting, or really both at the exact same time. It’s surreal.— Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history) March 12, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic is rousing all sorts of emotions, but none so vivid as uncertainty. There’s been much talk of using isolation to “flatten the curve” and slow the infection rate to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system. That’s great, but how much should we be isolating?
Officially the government is okay with groups of up to 100 people gathering indoors. It’s yet to institute the kind of federal lockdowns happening in Europe and Asia, where entire populations are in mandatory self-isolation and all restaurants and other public spaces are closed.
In Australia, public opinion is fractured. Broadsheet’s 12 editors have been working from home since Tuesday, but even within this small group, there’s no consensus about isolation. On Wednesday night, two editors went out for dinner (separately) to support a hospitality industry facing its biggest existential threat ever. Another editor, who comes from a family of doctors and has high-risk family members, is opposed to any non-essential person-to-person contact, such as picking up takeaway from a restaurant. The rest of us are somewhere in the middle.
Though we could probably learn something from Singapore’s containment strategy, it’s impossible to say who or what is right. And the situation gets particularly knotty when you consider the fact that 700,000 hospitality workers rely on the rest of us not staying home. Our takeaway coffee, our round of beers, our gig, our dinner – that’s their groceries, their rent, their livelihood. And as of this week, it’s gone. Restaurants, cafes and bars are already closing. Most – not some, most – will never come back.
“Last hurrah”: that’s how three people we interviewed for this story described the feeling in their venues the weekend before the ban on gatherings of more than 500 people kicked in. They were right.
“Early this week it all came crashing down – in a big way,” says Emma Kardachi, who heads up marketing for 13 venues owned or part-owned by her husband Simon Kardachi.
“All our eggs are in this basket,” says Kardachi. “Simon’s spent 20 years working his guts out, and to have no control over what’s going on with your businesses is so hard to deal with.”
It’s aggravated, she says, by “contradictory” messaging from the government. “That’s exactly why our trade has dropped 85 per cent – because people don’t know what the fuck to think. [The government is] not encouraging venues to shut, but at the same time [it’s] telling people to practise social distancing. It’s confusing.”
The hospitality industry has been hit hard – and fast. But it’s bracing for further impact. “What we’re currently going through is a slow death,” says Sali Sasi, who co-owns Leigh Street Wine Room with her husband Nathan.
“If this is what’s happening to the industry when it’s still safe to be out, what’s going to happen when it’s not? We’re gonna end up in no-man’s-land. I just want to cry.”
After the bar’s best-ever week of trade, last week was down by around 60 per cent, Sasi says. Already she’s been forced to let go of five casual staff to keep the business afloat, a move echoed in the Kardachi venues.
Around 6.30pm on Tuesday night there was one solitary customer at Leigh Street Wine Room, which is often booked out. But after Sasi posted a photo of the almost-empty venue on Instagram, the next night a group of my mates couldn’t even get a table. “Social media’s never been more necessary,” she says – for venues to show they’re still open, and for supporters to show they’re still dining out.
“The hospitality industry was so generous with the bushfires, everyone came together,” Emma adds. “And now people want to give back. It’s just a matter of them knowing how.”
If the landscape remains as it is for much longer, the future for restaurants looks bleak. “There’s not much positive. There are so many unknowns. I like to remain really optimistic but it’s gonna be a long recovery,” says Emma. Sasi adds: “It’s kinda like Finding Nemo – ‘just keep swimming, just keep swimming’. But if something doesn’t change, we can’t just keep treading water.”
So, how can you help?
In such uncertain times, “Everybody’s health is the most important thing,” says Emma. Most venues are doing all they can to adapt and adhere to changing protocols – pivoting to takeaway, spacing out tables, upping cleaning routines.
Think of it this way: “You’re not just having a meal,” says Sasi. “You’re literally keeping the doors open and keeping people employed.”
If you can’t dine at your favourite restaurants, get your food to-go (find our live list of restaurants pivoting to takeaway here), buy a gift card or pre-book a function.
“Pre-purchasing anything would be a massive one right now just for cashflow,” says Oliver Brown, who runs Nola, The Stag Public House, Yiasou George and Prospect’s Anchovy Bandit. All of which, Brown says, have had reduced covers since the weekend.
Africola chef-owner Duncan Welgemoed says he hasn’t seen the sharp downturn other restaurants have just yet. “But we always have a five-week plan,” he says. “And our five-week plan currently is ‘holy fucking shit’.”
Welgemoed, like so many operators across the country, has introduced takeaway service to stem the tide. “Instead of buying ready meals, buy slow food with the best ingredients and start stocking up your freezer [with food] from restaurants. You’ll be helping an entire industry.”
If you’re opting for takeaway, pick it up instead of ordering via Uber Eats. While the delivery service this week announced new measures to alleviate pressure on restaurants, Brown says at Anchovy Bandit, for example, Uber Eats takes up to 35 per cent on orders. “Now’s the time for everyone to think local, and think about the businesses they really want to support.”
Covid-19 (coronavirus) means we’re living in unprecedented and uncertain times. Mass public gatherings are banned and minimal social contact is recommended. If you have concerns about visiting businesses or public spaces, and questions about quarantine and self-isolation, or coronavirus testing, check out the latest updates from SA Health.