Melbourne pubs devastated by second lockdown

09 July, 2020 by Brydie Allen

Disappointment and devastation is widespread across Greater Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire right now, after moving back into Stage Three lockdown restrictions from midnight last night.

For some venues, the blow came early, with ten postcodes locked down a week earlier. That includes the Taylors Lakes Hotel in ‘hot spot’ postcode 3038. General manager Eric Visscher spoke to Australian Hotelier when they started their early lockdown, but said the business had already begun to be affected before Premier Dan Andrews announced the postcodes. 

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“Even prior to this close down there was an announcement that Brimbank [LGA] is considered a hot spot, and as soon as the words Brimbank and hot spot were mentioned, basically we saw a direct impact on our accommodation and restaurant bookings straight away… understandably, people saying we’re not comfortable coming to the hotspot,” Visscher said. 

After the lockdown extended beyond those 10 postcodes, Australian Hotelier caught up with Visscher again, who said the situation hadn’t changed for the hotel, but that business was hit harder. He said: “It was already quiet, but now it’s eerily quiet.”

For Melbourne venues outside of those postcodes, they’d felt a difference in the city even before the latest lockdown was announced. North Fitzroy pub, The Terminus Hotel, had taken the opportunity to renovate during the first lockdown, and weren’t open long before they had to shut down again.

Craig Shearer, director at Open Arms Hospitality, who operates the pub, said: “We reopened a bit later than everyone else, and had only been trading for two weeks before we were shut down again.

“The public support behind our reopening was massive – we were booked out every day and night through the whole two weeks that we were open. We didn’t notice it in numbers through the door, but certainly sentiment changed that second week after the 10 postcodes were locked down.”

Jess McGrath, owner of the Palace Hotel in South Melbourne and the Retreat Hotel in Abbotsford, said initial lockdowns started to impact both her venues. 

“We’ve got two pubs, and the one in Abbotsford, which is a lot closer to one of those postcodes that was locked down, on that side of town we definitely noticed a lot more cancellations just from people being cautious,” McGrath said. 

Now of course the situation has worsened for all these venues, and the whole Melbourne hospitality industry. Although the operators that Australian Hotelier spoke to still highlighted some positives that weren’t present in the first lockdown, it’s certainly still devastating to businesses and staff.

“It’s just a nightmare really,” Shearer said. “We’ve just reopened – staff and our loyal locals were all so happy about it, and just the emotional drain on everyone to be closing down again is the toughest part.”

“We’ll get through it and we’ll batten down the hatches to survive as best we can and get to the upside, but it’s just been a rollercoaster ride for everyone.”

As McGrath said, the second lockdown has undone a lot of positivity and hope that came with the slow easing of restrictions, even though this time around they knew more about what to expect. 

“There’s still a lot of uncertainty – for us in particular, we didn’t have many staff that qualified for JobKeeper and we’d only just gotten a lot of them back in working in the kitchen and front of house, and now we have to tell them that we can’t afford them anymore,” McGrath said. 

“It’s really sad and just really hard as an employer, because you want to look after your employees, but when you’re facing a situation like this there’s not really much you can do about it.”

Visscher too had to stand down more staff after going back into lockdown, and although he’s thankful for things like JobKeeper and takeaway infrastructure they didn’t have last time, he said the whole sentiment of the city is worse than before, and that is impacting business. 

“Business is just not there, even with takeaway at the moment, because people are very anxious this time around. I think they are just bunkering down and from that, business is almost non-existent,” Visscher said. 

Shearer said this sadness in the city might come from people knowing what’s to come, and knowing what they will have to deal with over the next six weeks.

“I think it’s like going to the gym for the first time – it hurts, but then going back the second time, knowing what you’re about to go through, there’s the mental challenge that makes it a bit tougher. But we’ve got through it, we got through a longer period last time and we’re going to get through it this time… that thought just doesn’t help when you wake up this morning and your beautiful new pub is shut again,” Shearer said.

McGrath, Visscher and Shearer all say that their businesses are now set up to accommodate take away, whereas last lockdown this wasn’t the case. They also mention the fact that at least there’s an end date, which they didn’t have last time either. However, as this piece illustrates, that doesn’t make this situation easy, and all three have hoped and called for more targeted support for the industry. 

Support for the industry

Although the latest lockdown didn’t come with any updates about JobKeeper, there have been some initial acts of support from outside the Government. 

Lion, for example, are doing what they can to help venues make the switch to selling takeaway beer again. 

A spokesperson for Lion said: “We appreciate this is an extremely difficult time for many venues in Victoria, and we will be working with them to manage individual requests on a case-by-case basis. We will also do what we can to assist those venues that choose to remain open for takeaway sales by providing more 1.25L bottles, caps and fillers to them free of charge, as well as point of sale kits.”

The Australian Hotels Association (AHA) of Victoria also announced via LinkedIn they would look for ways to help, in a post that said: “AHA (Vic) will ensure no member is left behind during these challenging times for the hospitality industry.”

Some of the ways the post said it could help included connecting members with partners to assist with takeaway and delivery services, moving existing perishable stock, workplace relations, and keg management. They ask members to get in touch to discuss what they need help with. 

As Kimberley Malcolm, AHA Victoria’s Senior Manager Membership and Industry Engagement, told The Shout yesterday: “I encourage our members who are returning to take away and delivery to trust they have done the work, their structures are in place to return to that mode of business for now.

“Unfortunately these circumstances are out of our control, we now have to focus on what we can control.”