22/05/2022

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Illness Outbreak Control Department | COVID-19

Craig Mack is suddenly looking at a frugal festive season ahead.

The 45-year-old part time bar staff at Sydney’s Kinselas Hotel was due to work an eight-hour Boxing Day shift, when the entire three storey venue was to host a special takeover event.

Like many hospitality events, it has now been cancelled due to the substantial surge in COVID cases, with the highest numbers in NSW.

“I had that money mentally spent on a holiday — I haven’t been on one of those for two years,” he says. “I just feel lucky I didn’t go on a spending spree.”

But Mack — who is also an occasional drag queen host at the bar — isn’t optimistic about other shifts. He was also due to do 10-hour shifts on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. 

“My shifts are still on for a lit NYE weekend, but looking at these trends, I’ll be amazed if that doesn’t change,” he says. “That’ll be 24 hours of scheduled work at [higher] public holiday rates, gone. It ruins income I’d planned and will impact everything.”

As this isn’t a government-mandated lockdown, no financial support is available to cover the income gap.

It’s those staff who rely on their hospitality wage for their main or full income Mack, who also works full time in digital marketing, feels most for.

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“Once again hospitality and arts/entertainment are the first industries affected,” he says. It’s that awful deja vu feeling. There’s bound to be a lot of hospo staff hoping Santa will bring their rent for Christmas.”

‘It feels devastating, soul destroying’

Venues nationwide are facing tough choices.

Matt Sinclair, owner of Noosa’s Sum Yung Guys in Noosa, posted an emotional video in which he tearily announced the Queensland restaurant had no choice but to close in the busiest week of the year, less than two weeks into the state’s border reopening.

The fully booked restaurant, due to serve 300 customers daily, saw a staff member contract COVID, plunging 25 fully vaccinated employees on the same shift into a week’s isolation and forcing the Asian fusion eatery to close due to staff shortage.

Event promoter Dan Murphy has just cancelled three major upcoming events in a single day and refunded all guests.

The venue take-over events were to take place at The Burdekin on Boxing Day, The Beresford on January 3 and The Oxford Hotel imminently, all hosting up to 1,000 patrons.

His New Year’s Day event I Remember House is, at this stage, still going ahead at The Imperial Hotel in Sydney and The Emerson in Melbourne on January 2, but Murphy’s gut feeling is they’ll be cancelled, given the trend.

“It feels devastating, soul destroying,” he says. “That’s DJs, drag queens, performers and staff all out of work.”

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The impact is brutal.

“You get in this really bad headspace, thinking, why am I even bothering to look forward to anything any more?” he says. “There’s this feeling of helplessness, hopelessness and just wondering when is this ever going to end?”

It’s coupled, he says, with an understanding things simply cannot proceed in the current rapidly changing environment

“It’s not safe. Safety of guests and staff is paramount.”

He does, however, have a message for NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet.

“It’s pretty off to put all this responsibility back on us. He’s supposed to lead us through this,” Murphy says. “By saying we should take responsibility, he’s shirking his own.”

NSW has reinstated mask mandates and the one person per 2 square metre rule for indoor venues, which will further affect hospitality.

Murphy will lose unavoidable fixed costs: graphic design, photography, advertising and promotional costs associated with running large events, and won’t earn any ticket revenue.

“Even though they haven’t mandated everyone stay home, so many people are in self or mandated isolation, this is a lockdown in all but name,” he says.

A man on a leafy rooftop holds up a spritz
Michael Hooper stopped working bar shifts when unvaccinated people were allowed back in venues.(Supplied: Michael Hooper)

Difficult ethical decisions

Other pressures face hospitality staff since NSW fully opened up: whether to serve the unvaccinated.

Michael Hooper, 25, cancelled all his festive season shifts at Sydney’s Oxford Hotel when unvaccinated patrons were let in from 15 December.

“My concern was I’ll catch COVID and give it to my family over Christmas, or become a close contact and need to isolate alone,” he says.

The bar staffer usually works 12-hour shifts five times a week and feels he has had to make the difficult decision between income and safety.

“It has turned my workplace into a high risk environment,” he says. Initially worried he’d lose his job, his employer was understanding — but he’s heard of cases surge amongst hospitality workers there.

“I’m now unsure I want to return in the new year,” he says. “NSW case numbers are nuts.”

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‘Wherever stays open will have the next outbreak’

Chippendale’s Lord Gladstone Hotel has closed its doors till New Year’s Eve, and will reassess nearer the time.

“We’ve just seen venues in our area — Chippendale, Redfern, Waterloo — shutting early as they’ve had COVID cases and staff getting sick,” owner Benjamin Johnson says. “We made the difficult decision so as to protect staff and customers.”

Leading up to the decision, many ticket holders were requesting refunds to a Boxing Day third-party event at the venue, making it unsustainable.

“Everyone’s playing it very, very safe,” Johnson says. “It felt irresponsible to be the only venue open in the area — we wanted to also show solidarity with other local venues. Everyone knows how hard we like to party this time of year, but wherever’s left open to go is probably the next venue to have an outbreak.”

He says they’re waiting for the dust to settle with a view to reopening, but realises that dust — with surging cases — is only likely to worsen.

Stephen Ferguson, CEO of the National Hotels Association, says this is a tough time for hotels and their staff.

“We’re hearing of many businesses closing due to having close contacts or cases on premises,” he says. “A tragic outcome of that is that casual staff will go without wages and full time staff are likely to have to draw down on their annual leave.”

What’ll make this “tremendously difficult,” he says, is the lost higher penalty rate wages staff were relying on.

The association will be pushing governments to offer support packages.

“This is due to the number of businesses closing down at short notice through no fault of their own, as a result of specific health orders not on the business itself, but on individuals within that business,” he says.

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