‘Code red’: Melbourne businesses say Omicron wave more damaging than lockdown

By Ben Butler
CEO and founder of gourmet burger chain, Burgertory, Hash Tayeh.
Hash Tayeh, owner of Victorian food chain Burgertory, says 260 of his 400 staff have had Covid. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

Hash Tayeh has been back behind the counter at the burger chain he founded, Burgertory, for the first time in three years as he struggles to keep the business going in the face of the Omicron wave.

He has been doing night shifts at his outlet on Chapel Street in Melbourne, a fashionable shopping and entertainment strip which local traders say has been overwhelmed by Covid-related staff shortages.

The pandemic taught him to “just never get too comfortable and always be humble,” he said.

“So I was helping them take orders, take out the rubbish, mop the floors, do the dishes – wherever they needed me.”

Two hundred and sixty of Burgertory’s 400 staff have had Covid.

In addition to working in the Chapel Street restaurant, he cut five hours a day from its opening hours. He also closed four other Burgertory outlets due to lack of staff, although he was able to reopen one of them on Wednesday.

Hash Tayeh, owner of burger chain Burgertory, stands behind the shop counter
Thirty five per cent of Chapel Street workers either have or have had Covid, according to a local business group. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

Staff shortages have ravaged Australian business, smashing apart the supply chains that supermarkets rely on to keep food on the shelves, cutting the supply of chicken, grounding planes, and crushing tourism and hospitality businesses on the east coast.

Consumer confidence has plunged as casual workers are stripped of shifts while sick or isolating, and an unofficial lockdown is in place with restaurants and bars reporting fewer customers than usual as people try to dodge the virus.

On Chapel Street, 35% of people employed by 2,200 businesses either have or have had Covid, local business group Chapel Street Precinct estimated.

“We’re keeping our head above water but we’re not making a profit at the moment,” Tayeh said.

“There’s no state support, there’s no federal support – it’s really hard at the moment.”

Chrissie Maus, the general manager of Chapel Street Precinct, is herself in isolation, recovering from Covid.

Empty shop-fronts on Chapel Street, Prahran
Maus’ group was in contact with the Victorian minister for small business to ask for a return to the $750-a-week disaster payment. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian
A sign in a shop front explaining that opening hours have been shortened due to staff shortages
Maus said opening up was a ‘double edged sword’ as businesses were not receiving any financial support. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

She said businesses urgently need financial support.

“This is a code red for retail right now.”

Her group was in contact with the Victorian minister for small business, Jaala Pulford, on Wednesday afternoon to ask for a return to the $750-a-week disaster payment that Melburnians were eligible for during the city’s sixth lockdown late last year.

The group has also written to the federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, asking the Morrison government to stump up half the money needed.

She said opening up was a “double edged sword” and businesses in the area were better off during the lockdowns when they were getting some financial support, even if it was minimal.

“Right now, where we’re open and pretending everything’s fine, we get no support.”

Shopfronts on Chapel Street in melbourne
While rapid tests form part of businesses’ Covid strategies, they are in short supply, with tens of millions yet to arrive. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

Maus recognised that there was a crisis in healthcare staffing, but said the situation was even worse in retail and hospitality.

“Melbourne is absolutely standing up and screaming, ‘please, please help us like you have for the last 22 months.’”

Businesses also need a supply of rapid antigen tests, which are in short supply. State and federal governments have ordered tens of millions, but the bulk are yet to arrive.

“How can we have a solution that includes RAT tests when none of us can find them?” she said.

Tayeh said he had a supply of rapid tests thanks to a pharmacist friend.

He said closing the stores had provoked a backlash from customers but people “need to understand that we’re entering a new phase of the pandemic”.

“And the only thing that’s going to help is kindness and patience, to actually understand that we’re all doing our best out there and … this will blow over in the way we’ve seen all over the world.”

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