What will the journey out of lockdown look like for local businesses?
Bass Coast, along with the rest of regional Victoria, moved to Step 2 in the state government’s recovery roadmap on Sunday, then went to Step 3 from midnight on September 16.
Step 3 means retail and hospitality venues can once again open their doors. However, all venues must comply with density limits and for cafes, restaurants and bars, the emphasis will be on outdoor seated service, with a 10-person group limit.
Kim Storey, General Manager at Destination Phillip Island believes life will look different in the ‘Covid Normal’ world and creative thinking will play a big part in the road to recovery.
She said DPI had already had discussions with the Department of Jobs, to get more clarity around the cap on numbers for attractions and tour operators.
With the Step 3 emphasis on outdoor dining, they’re also working with Bass Coast Shire Council on ways to streamline and fast-track outdoor dining permits, to allow businesses to make the most of the loosened restrictions.
DPI is also encouraging businesses to talk to Council about ideas they have on how to best work within the restrictions.
“We’re encouraging council to talk with business owners and asking businesses to think outside the square and take those ideas to council,” said Kim.
One idea being floated is creating pedestrian malls in high retail traffic areas like Thompson Avenue. This would allow more outdoor dining and seated areas and safer spaces for crowds.
“It’s not just about space for outdoor dining, it’s about the shopping as well,” said Kim.
“It opens up a space to move up and down the street, so people are comfortable moving from shop to shop.”
Such a move would take “engagement and support from the retail precinct” said Kim, who confirmed that the Department of Jobs was already working with Regional Roads Victoria, DELWP and Liquor Licensing to allow councils to instigate such initiatives.
“Council seemed really open to it and are already looking at it,” Kim said.
Other states had taken a similar shift to outdoor dining and Kim said areas like Bendigo and the Mornington Peninsula had already put together plans to support their shopping areas.
“We are coming into the best time to do this. Let’s hope there’s plenty of opportunity for outdoor dining.”
While the news of a quick move to Step 3 has been welcomed by everyone in regional Victoria, the head of the Australian Retailers Association, Paul Zahra said 50 per cent of small businesses would be “wiped out” by the government’s roadmap.
A survey by Glow Research for Sensis paints a slightly brighter picture, with regional businesses more confident of recovery under the plan.
Nineteen per cent of small to medium businesses in Melbourne believe it will take more than a year to return to profit, while only four per cent of regional businesses felt the same.
In fact, 43 per cent of regional businesses said the roadmap would have “no impact” on their survival, compared to 25 per cent of their Melbourne counterparts.
However, Kim said businesses on the island and in San Remo did not fit neatly into the regional business mould, for a number of reasons.
“We have the lowest number of permanent residents to visitors in Victoria,” said Kim.
“That means the pool of income opportunity is much smaller than other regions.”
With 35 per cent of the local workforce employed by tourism, Kim said a lot of local families have lost some or all of their income.
The high percentage of older residents also impacted on the local economy, with many having their income affected by super changes and low-interest rates on their investments.
While DPI doesn’t have any official figures on how many local businesses have closed due to the pandemic, Kim said they always predicted “the crunch” would be in September and October, particularly for businesses with high fixed costs.
“High costs like rent, electricity and insurance are usually off-set by the peak season, and they haven’t had that. Small businesses might have a cash reserve, but that would be whittled down now, and those costs are enough to accumulate a big debt after six months without income.”
Looking to the future
Reopening cautiously so there can be a return to some kind of normalcy by the summer holidays is the focus of the roadmap.
Kim said in DPI’s discussions with the government, the Premier said the goal was to have the state operating again for Christmas. With limited travel opportunities available she agreed Phillip Island was well placed to benefit from Victorians keen to enjoy a holiday.
She said it was vital that planning started now to reduce the congestion in key areas.
“What are the creative things we can plan now, to make people feel more comfortable with those spaces? It will require some creativity from our attractions, in their timing with bookings,” said Kim.
She believes the emphasis on outdoor dining will see people continuing to support takeaway options.
“There will be a lot more picnicking and takeaway, so how will our businesses package those options? I can see some really nice opportunities to set up tables and chairs at the bottom of Cowes. We have lots of open spaces and should be able to deliver that.”
With no international or even interstate visitors on the immediate horizon, DPI is currently working with Visit Victoria on region to region marketing, although that would be tied to government directives on promoting travel between regions.
“The one positive of the border closure is it will encourage tourism within the state,” said Kim.
“We’re thinking about how we can talk to other people in Gippsland and the northern area about travelling here.”
The digital and social media campaigns will be targeted so they don’t hit the Melbourne market.
Any business reopening under Step 3 will also need to have a Covid Safe plan in place.
“Again we are seeking clarification and understanding of these plans which should be designed to consider to the size and footprint of the business,” Kim said.
“Many local businesses have also been working on their Covid cleaning plans. We acknowledge that business and community want a simple plan, but we do understand the health imperatives and that various business sector openings have various impacts for the government to manage.”
DPI will also be watching the upcoming council elections with interest.
“It would be rather concerning if a candidate hadn’t started thinking about economic recovery in the region,” said Kim.
“We’d be very interested in hearing their thoughts. We highly recommend that candidates consider their platform on economic recovery and the economics of the region going forward.”
Businesses wanting to be part of DPIs partnership promotion can visit destinationphillipisland.org.au.
For full details of the state government’s roadmap to reopening, including details of restrictions under each step, visit www.vic.gov.au/coronavirus-covid-19-restrictions-roadmaps