Another month and another Covid-19 related lockdown in an Australian capital city. By now, you know the drill: break out the masks, do some panic buying, don’t see your mates, call your mum regularly.
But snap lockdowns also come with real costs to the economy, and small businesses such as restaurants and cafes in particular. It was brought into stark relief in February when Di Keser took to social media to explain the closure of her enormously popular Melbourne cafe, Hardware Société, following a five-day lockdown.
“It breaks my heart to say this aloud, but this is our truth,” the post read. “Today our sales were $391 – that’s about $10,000 less than an ordinary Monday.”
“Everyone’s too ashamed to admit it’s a clusterfuck … but it’s okay not to be okay,” she went on to tell Broadsheet. “If it’s happening to us it’s gotta be happening to others.”
It is happening to others, and it’s happening in Brisbane this week as the city endures its own snap lockdown following the detection of new community transmitted cases of Covid-19. The messaging from the government, as always, makes sense – go hard and go early to avoid a longer lockdown – and this is a new challenge facing Brisbane and Queensland, with the state currently carrying 71 active cases in its hospitals, up from just five a month ago.
But the timing for the city’s food and drink scene – which has proven remarkably resilient and even bullish in recent months – could hardly be worse, coming after an earlier Brisbane lockdown in January, on the heels of the traditionally quiet February and March period, and just days after the government’s Jobkeeper wage subsidy was ended. Now, operators are faced with the decision of whether to place orders with their suppliers for the long weekend, not yet knowing whether the lockdown will end Thursday evening (a decision is due Thursday morning).
Ryan Lane, owner of Proof BBQ & Booze in Windsor and Woolloongabba, has already made the decision not to open over the Easter break.
“I would have to order food this afternoon because we’ve gotta start cooking at 2am in the morning, to then potentially be told at 9am we’re staying in lockdown,” Lane says. “It doesn’t work for hospitality and the premier should know that.”
Lane can’t rely on takeaway either, and says this is where a city-wide lockdown is different to a national shutdown similar to what the country experienced last March and April.
“Everyone has upped and left town anyway,” he says. “In January, the first Friday of that snap lockdown, we did just $200 in delivery and takeaway … if you lock down just one area, a lot of business leaves town because they’re given 10 hours to leave. In January, over that weekend snap lockdown, I calculated we lost nearly $40,000.”
Lane supports this latest lockdown given the greater strain Queensland hospitals are under, but says there’s been a lack of consistency from the state government.
“I agree that this one was necessary but we had cases earlier in the month with the PA doctor, and they didn’t lock us down,” he says. “But back in January, we had one case in the community and they locked us down quick smart.”
Lockdowns also come with a halo effect, with diners cancelling reservations pre-lockdown as local Covid cases rise (a reminder, perhaps, that if the coronavirus was allowed to spread unchecked, business would likely be depressed anyway), and venues suffering a hangover as diners are slow to return. Lane says business never quite recovered after the January lockdown. It was a similar situation at Andrew Baturo’s restaurants, Naga Thai and Libertine.
“I was looking forward to probably what I thought was going to be one of the better Januarys we’ve had in the past decade,” Baturo says. “Then that lockdown hit and took the wind out of everyone’s sails and crushed the momentum we were enjoying.
“It’s not just the three days you’re locked down for. It's the following seven days to two weeks, where people cautiously dip their toe back in again. Last Friday, even just the discussion of Covid caused cancellations.”
It’s been a similar situation at Baja in Fortitude Valley.
“We lost momentum after the January lockdown,” owner Dan Quinn says. “Before that we were looking good, but the weekdays haven’t been the same since. The weekends are packed out but you can’t get any more people in because of the square-metre rule.”
The financial effect of a lockdown also depends on what kind of outlet you’re running and where it is. Last year during the autumn national shutdown, Giorgina Venzin’s enormously popular cafe Pawpaw struggled to make money given its location in sparsely populated East Brisbane. So she turned it into a pop-up bakery, and eventually spun off the idea into Darvella, a Swiss-inspired patisserie in Bulimba.
“We’re so well drilled now to react to whatever the news is tomorrow,” Venzin says. “Pawpaw is shut … But Darvella is designed for this environment and is in an area where you can go out and get your coffee and some takeaway. So those kinds of businesses are fine.”
Mark Bignell, co-owner of Bellissimo Coffee, sees it both ways: being a buzzy coffee business allowed Bellissimo to focus on takeaway, but a snap lockdown also throws into doubt its roasting operations.
“You don’t know if that coffee is going to be sold or if you’re going to end up sitting on beans that you’ll have to throw out,” he says. “But thankfully, the takeaway option is always open to us so we fared better last year than our friends in pubs and clubs who had to shut down completely.”
Regardless, Venzin, Bignell, Baturo and Quinn all agree with Lane that the latest lockdown was required – or at least that it was more fortunately timed than the January lockdown, which wiped out a valuable weekend of trade.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Venzin says. “Because with these four days of public holidays coming up, we’ll have to pay double time. We are still planning on opening [if the lockdown ends] but if everyone’s still nervous and they’re not going out, we’re maybe not going to take that risk … But I would rather lock down on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday because all our businesses don't make the kind of figures on those days that they do on the weekend.”
“It feels a lot better to have gotten through last weekend,” Baturo adds. “We’ll deal with this and then see what happens.
“At these particular points, I like to say I remain hopeful and stay grateful. Because, who knows? This three-day lockdown could be the difference between getting on top of it or Brisbane becoming another London or New York or Melbourne. Most people would rather three days now than a month later on.
“I am working towards opening those doors at 5.01pm on Thursday afternoon like you wouldn't believe – that's what I've been told I can do,” Baturo says. “And that's what I'm aiming for. I want everyone to have a great Easter … It’s weird, I know I’m closed right now but I’m excited about reopening already.”