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. 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, it’s impossible to say who or what is right. And the situation gets particularly knotty when you think 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.
“This is a one-in-a-100-year experience,” says Frank Van Haandel, who owns The Stokehouse in St Kilda with his wife Sharon. “No one would believe the number of restaurants that are going to close."
“We rely on the Comedy Festival income to take us through March and April. Then we have the Easter income as people come into town on holidays. So we’ve lost that. How are we going to recoup that? That’s $20,000 to $30,000 a week, lost ... We live month to month, week to week, and we rely on certain months to take us through. And if we don’t have customers in these months now, not many of us will make it out to the other side.”
“What the fuck are we gonna do?” says Kate Bartholomew, who employs 100 people across CBD restaurants Coda and Tonka, which she runs with her husband, Mykal Bartholomew. “We’re barely able to pay rent, let alone pay all our staff. The government has to kick in right now. We will not survive unless the government kicks in.
“The unemployment is going to be out of control. The homelessness is already out of control in Melbourne. What on earth are these people going to do without money? These guys live paycheque to paycheque. As soon as they don’t get paid, they can’t pay their rent, they can’t get food. This going to happen to all our employees. We just don’t know what to do.”
“This is the hardest day in my life, full stop. This is devastating, absolutely devastating,” says Jake Smyth, co-owner of newly opened burger joint Mary’s and a number of other restaurants in Sydney, his voice cracking audibly over the phone. Smyth and his business partner Kenny Graham have spent the past two days laying off 150 of their 240 employees. “We’ve done everything we can to keep our staff afloat, but we have no casual staff going forward,” he says. “Where do they go, what do they do, other than Centrelink? It’s such an inadequate response from this government.”
“It’s pretty scary for these guys [our staff],” says Christian McCabe. Embla, the restaurant he co-owns with chef Dave Verheul, is still trading, but its upstairs neighbour, Lesa will shut after tomorrow night’s service. “It’s pretty rare for them to have a month’s worth of money stashed away to survive. A lot of us, myself included, are not Australian, so we’re not entitled to the dole. They’re pretty vulnerable people, who for the moment have been left to the walls.”
“There’s a lot of panic, there’s a lot of misinformation, which is effectively shutting down the industry,” says Chris Lucas of Chin Chin, Kong, Baby and Kisumé. “And it’s contrary to what the government is saying. The government is saying, there is no clear, mandated shutdown as of yesterday [March 18] and that we’re able to trade within the limitations they’ve provided.”
But that uncertainty – that mixed messaging from government, health departments, media, social media, friends and family – has seen trade at restaurants, cafes and bars across Melbourne drop off a cliff this week. The government may not have imposed a shutdown, but the public effectively has.
“We were pretty early on this and started negotiating with landlords and putting procedures in place weeks ago,” says Sven Almenning, owner of cocktail bars Eau De Vie, Mjølner, Nick & Nora’s and Boilermaker House. “We have stringent cleaning procedures, we have cleaners who come and sanitise the venues, we have sanitisers in venue. We’re a safe environment to be in, as much as we can control.”
Almenning himself is at high risk to the coronavirus. “I think my age bracket, 45, is a 0.4 mortality rate if I get the virus,” he says. “But as a diabetic, I’m pretty much on par with 80-year-olds. It’s a 12 per cent chance, I think I read. I’m restricting my movements and taking personal responsibility for myself. “It’s difficult. I think there’s going to be a lot of people who still want to go out, have a drink and enjoy some food. If they are feeling healthy and haven’t been in touch with any confirmed cases of Covid-19, we want to be there for them.”
That’s Lucas’s message too. “We’re here, we’re open because we’ve been told to stay open,” he says. “I’m reiterating what the prime minister said, which is: go out and conduct your life as normal. Go out and support your local bakery, your local cafe, your local restaurant, your local pharmacy, your local retail store. Try and do the social distancing, take care of your personal hygiene. But life cannot come to an end.
“We’re not an essential service like a hospital, but if we are to shut our restaurants down because of panic, not because of a mandated shutdown, thousands and thousands of people are going to suffer over and above the employees.”
“Sharon and I had dinner at the Stokehouse last night,” Van Haandel says. “It could not have been a more beautiful experience. A beautiful meal, looking out over the ocean, with a glass of wine. The point I’m trying to make is, we appreciated the experience more than ever in the past. It’s an opportunity to escape the woes of the world. To put it behind you and have a little bit of respite. It’s a good feeling. Get out there and live your life.”
“Enjoy it while it lasts. I’d say that about a lot of your favourite restaurants,” McCabe says. “It’s inevitable that they’re going to go. Some of them, like us, will be able to reopen. But a lot of people out there, they’re not going to make it.”