Small businesses feel the squeeze over Covid compliance

Shopper at Westfield Bondi Junction (pictured) after the easing of lockdown restrictions. Photo: Dean Lewins/AAP.

By TILEAH DOBSON

Businesses, both small retail outlets and large chains, have endured their first full fortnight after NSW reopened from a four-month-long lockdown – but a period that should be filled with joy has become a precarious tightrope for some business owners and their employees.

In line with NSW Government regulations, authorised officers are monitoring businesses to ensure compliance at hospitality venues, gyms, retail stores and personal service businesses like hair salons. Those that fail to police customer vaccination statuses or medical exemptions face up to $5,000 on-the-spot fines.

Julia Campbell is a small business owner who runs an independent optometrist in Sydney’s CBD. She spoke to the Sentinel about her experiences since opening back up.

“Our customers that have been patiently waiting to have eye tests are very happy to have us back to fulfil their eye care needs. However, these are arranged appointments and other than that there are very few people back working in offices in the city and until they are we will remain very quiet,” Campbell said.

When asked if she’s had to deal with angry customers, Campbell says she has been lucky enough to avoid it – although customers are exhibiting signs of frustration.

Independent optometrist Julie Campbell is thrilled to be back open after the long lockdown. Photo: Master Specs/Facebook.

“They haven’t been rude about it but you can tell they are already tired of having to produce a certificate and check-in each time they go to a new business. Sending business once again to online shopping,” Campbell said.

Business owner Jessica Bailey, who runs the Vegan Grocery Store in Sydney, has dealt with a few bumps since reopening.

“There’ve been one or two who kicked up a fuss about having to wear masks in store but overwhelmingly customers were keen to do the right thing and supportive of us having to enforce the law,” Bailey said.

“We were lucky in that we already had an established online store, so it was easy for us to scale up to accommodate the extra demand caused by lockdowns and the massive increase in people ordering online,” she said.

Not all have been so lucky. In footage that went viral, an anti-vaxxer was shown berating a barista at Tempe cafe, Cafe Dzajko. The man became abusive after seeing a sign informing customers that proof of vaccination was required to enter.

9 News report on an anti-vaxxer berating a barista at Cafe Dzajko. Video: 9 News Australia/YouTube.

However, some businesses have been able to avoid negative backlash from customers.

Michelle Robards, a hairdresser at the beauty salon Imperium, located in Katoomba, has been blessed with supportive and understanding customers when checking them in.

“My clients have been pretty good about it. Most of them come in ready to show it to me straight away and the clients that I have that aren’t vaccinated just said I’ll see you after the 1st of December,” Robards said.

“So far they’ve all been pretty respectful of the fact that we have to do this and they’re complying,” she said.

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When asked if the government should help small businesses by providing security to check people in, Campbell and Robards agreed with this idea.

“Yes, I have enough to do and even more so than other retail businesses as we now have to have a very strict cleaning routine after every eye consultation and also sterilise our frames after being tried on,” Campbell said.

“I don’t think after all small businesses have been through that I should be at risk of being fined if I happen to miss checking on a customer entering my store at this time.”

City of Sydney Councillor Angela Vithoulkas, who is the founder and leader of the Small Business Party, has also voiced concerns about the lack of government support for small businesses.

Councillor Angela Vithoulkas, pictured, wants the government to do more for small businesses. Photo: Angela Vithoulkas/Facebook.

“It’s irresponsible of the NSW Government to expect small businesses to take on the risk, leaving them exposed to WHS impacts on their staff, legal claims from customers and stakeholders, and fines for non-compliance,” Vithoulkas said.

“We can’t turn small businesses into facilities that keep people out when their whole existence is about welcoming them in. Since the NSW Government is forcing small businesses to be Covid police, then they should be providing financial assistance for the sole purpose of funding additional trained personnel to help navigate a divisive community challenge that could see these small businesses lose customers instead of gaining them.”

With the state surpassing the 80 per cent vaccination goal, financial assistance to small businesses is being withdrawn – a move that, according to Vithoulkas, will devastate small businesses.

“The NSW Government and councils have no idea on the devastating financial impacts small businesses have faced, with worse to come. The massive debt they have accumulated in the last 20 months won’t magically disappear because the vaccination rates are on track.

“The CBD isn’t projected to recover to pre-Covid business until mid to late 2022 – and even then, that won’t make up for the losses and debt from the last 20 months.”

Tileah Dobson is the news editor of the Sydney Sentinel.