Hopes of a summer rebound dashed as Omicron wave leaves businesses reeling

Brendan Rees

Hospitality owners in the inner city say they are fighting for survival as the Omicron COVID-19 wave sparks a shortage of workers and lockdown-like conditions, leaving many consumers at home.

Many restaurants, cafes, and eateries had either closed temporarily, or reduced their opening hours because of large numbers of staff, many who were close contacts of cases, isolating at home.  

Fab Succi, owner of Italian restaurant Tiamo in Carlton’s iconic Lygon St, said he was forced to close his venue for a week in early January because of staff shortages.

“We were really busy but unfortunately it catches you by surprise,” he said. “It’s very unpredictable.”

“What we can’t work is the never-ending changes in the definition of close contacts, rulings for what isolation so forth.”

“The government is doing the best it can to work with it but because it is so fluid things change. They seem to make up things as they go along, it’s very hard to work it out.”

Mr Succi, whose family-run business has been in operation for 40 years, told Inner City News, that while the unprecedented disruption was challenging, “we need to have ways for people to still come out and enjoy themselves and be careful.”

“People are just kind of scared. After lockdown, people I think are still once bitten twice shy.”

George Seoud, who owns four hospitality venues including MOFO burgers in Carlton, said the precinct was largely deserted.

“If I go back to full rent, I’ll have to walk away. There’s no way we’ll survive it,” he said, adding he had no choice but to temporarily shut three of his shops while MOFO Burgers had just kept him afloat.

The state government recently extended its commercial tenancy relief scheme to allow small to medium businesses experiencing hardship by coronavirus to defer rent – but for businesses owners like Mr Seoud, more help was needed.

“We need backpackers, we need tourism, we need international students – they’re the ones that come with the money. Unfortunately, there’s no one coming in.”


It’s just hanging in there to be honest. The real reason I’m staying open there is to retain my staff. We’re banking on March that it kicks off again.


Il Gusto owner Ali Elbatt said he had few customers walking into his Italian restaurant on Lygon St, but he was staying optimistic saying, “After 40 years I never worry.”

“I open early, I close early,” he said. “Everything is hard.”

In Carlton North, Fledging Expresso café owner Connor Cunliffe said his shop had resorted to take away service because of staff having succumbed to the virus.

“We literally had five staff all on the one day test positive,” he said. “It can literally change within a day.”

“Touch wood we’re all good to go at the moment”.

Susanna Pjoh, who co-owns Mugs Alley in East Melbourne, said the second day they opened after the Christmas break, they had to close their venue for two weeks after her family caught the virus.

While they made a full recovery and reopened, Ms Pjoh said trade had taken a hit as the Omicron variant had kept away many workers who would otherwise be back in the office.   

“We’re only making about 30 to 40 per cent of what we used to make before COVID,” she said, adding she took a second job working at the MCG in hospitality to make ends meet.

“I still have some savings from the government grant, but if the business keeps like this … I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Phillip Mansour, executive officer of the Carlton Inc - Carlton’s Traders Association, said businesses were doing it tough – which he attributed to the federal government not providing enough rapid antigen tests.

“We wouldn’t be in this predicament … the government should have secured these rapid antigen tests a long time ago and made them freely available for everyone,” he said. “That’s the stranglehold at the moment because many are isolating or are undertaking a self-imposed lockdown to mitigate catching COVID-19.”

However, on a positive note, he said the association was working with the City of Melbourne in shortlisting more than 180 applications for businesses wishing to activate vacant shop fronts in the precinct.

Mr Mansour said it was an “exciting opportunity” for businesses to prove themselves over a six-month trial period starting in March, which would also “breathe new life into Carlton”.

Meanwhile, Lord Mayor Sally Capp is pushing for workers to return to city offices, saying “we can’t let fears of this latest variant cost us another year stuck at home”.

“I’m not arguing to ‘let it rip’ but I am convinced that we need to live with the virus in a way that protects both our mental and physical health, socialises and educates our children, and allows our economy to flourish and our city thrive,” Cr Capp said.

“I’m also convinced that Melbourne is extraordinary when it is full of people sharing ideas and working together.” •

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