A hefty price tag for small businesses complying with NSW Health COVID-19 restrictions

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Being greeted with hand-sanitiser stations and social-distancing signs is part of the new normal for shoppers in NSW.

But being COVID-19 safe comes with a hefty price tag for small businesses, with some spending thousands of dollars to continue operating under mandatory NSW Health measures — even as profits shrink.

Two-thirds of businesses reported a decrease in revenue due to the pandemic, according to a June Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) survey.

One in three of those businesses said they’d lost 50 per cent or more.

Some are rising to the challenge during tough times, but bigger venues say it’s not viable to re-open at all under current restrictions.

In the Western Sydney suburb of Fairfield, Barone Pharmacy owner David Yassa says he’s spent more than $5000 so far to continue operating during the coronavirus outbreak.

The family-run pharmacy has been in Fairfield since 1967 and, as an essential service, Mr Yassa says it was clear they had to adapt no matter the cost.

“It was an extra burden on us, but it was to make sure our staff and customers were safe — it was a cost we just had to incur.”

“The thing that would have cost us the most would be the sneeze guards as they’re custom-made. They cost around $2500.”

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During the first stage of restrictions, the pharmacy brought in a security guard to monitor people’s temperatures and enforce distancing.

“That cost us between $1000-$1500 per week. Along with the stickers on the floor, sanitiser and all the new signage, I’ve spent overall $5000,” he says.

According to ABS data, three in four businesses have continued to trade with modifications — with 65 per cent introducing new hygiene practices, 57 per cent limiting the number of people on site and 46 per cent making workforce changes, such as working from home.

‘It’s not feasible’

Fairfield’s main street of shopfronts are still busy, but around the corner an opulent wedding venue sits empty.

The owner of Paradiso Receptions Steve Naamo says in 30 years the family business has operated, it’s never been so dire across their seven venues.

They would normally be playing host to large multicultural weddings of more than 700 people, with lots of feverous dancing and shared kisses.

But Mr Naamo says it’s not worth reopening, despite being able to safely host socially-distanced functions.

“It’s not feasible … the actual cost of the operation isn’t doable when there’s a 150 cap for these big venues.”

“Customers don’t want to cut down their guest list by 75 per cent then have to pay a tonne more per head.”

Under the new COVID-19 compliance orders in NSW, capacity must not exceed 150 guests, or one guest per 4 square metre at weddings.

Mr Naamo is hoping guest numbers can be increased for bigger venues.

‘I can’t afford the fine’

Around the corner at Smart St Fish Market, a maximum of six people in the store ensures owner James Violaris won’t breach COVID-19 health orders.

A slip-up on safety means getting slapped with a $5000 non-compliance fine from health inspectors. If they breach it twice, the business must close for a week.

“I can’t afford the fine, I just can’t do it. I tell my staff that, I remind customers.”

Although he’s lost 40 per cent of his trade, his running costs have increased due hiring two extra staff.

“One to be at the door at all times, and one serving so people can get in and out. That’s what people want right now — they’re scared.”

Mr Violaris said he’d welcome more support from the Government to help his business from going under.

“Even if it’s just covering that extra staffing costs — it would be a huge help in surviving the year.”

According to ABS data, one in 10 businesses expect to close completely if Government support measures were no longer available.

That would mean more than 68,000 NSW businesses shutting for good.

NSW Opposition Leader Jodi McKay says small businesses need ongoing monetary assistance, and more help for multicultural businesses to understand the COVID-safe requirements.

“This is going to be a prolonged issue so we’re saying to Government is, please make sure there is financial assistance available, so everyone can do the right thing,” she said.

Aside from implementing a COVID-Safe plan, it’s mandatory for hospitality venues to be registered with the Government.

More than 51,000 businesses received grants of up $10,000 in April and June to cover unavoidable expenses from the NSW Government small business support grants.

Now, the NSW Government is offering a Small Business Recovery Grant of up to $3,000 for highly-affected industries.

A NSW Government spokeswoman says more than 23,000 businesses have accessed the grant.

“These $3,000 grants could be used to pay for expenses like making a store COVID-Safe, or to fund marketing costs to let customers and clients know they were open for business.”

What remains the challenge though is creating restrictions that can balance business needs across different sectors.

Mr Naamo knows it will be some time before he can create the big weddings his clients dream of.

“Our business is emotional, it’s not just like buying a car — a wedding is the biggest event of their lives.

“So we’re devastated we can’t give them that celebration.”

Much of his time is now spent on the phone with couples about when restrictions will ease so they can reschedule their wedding.

Mr Naamo doesn’t have the answers.

“We’re trying to counsel our couples but no-one is counselling us and helping us understand where do we go from here.”

By Mridula Amin (Original ABC Article)

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