Covid-19 city lockdowns felt sharply by regional businesses as federal MP Helen Haines blames 'policy on the run'

Kate Broadhurst, who runs a small bed and breakfast in Huskisson, is relieved micro businesses will get some support. Peter Neville, below, operates Flowerdale Estate in the Yarra Valley.
Kate Broadhurst, who runs a small bed and breakfast in Huskisson, is relieved micro businesses will get some support. Peter Neville, below, operates Flowerdale Estate in the Yarra Valley.

Danny Payne sells sunglasses and binoculars - must-haves for visitors enjoying the sparkling waters and marine life of his small patch of paradise two and half hours south of Sydney. Trouble is, no one is here to buy them. The normal visitors are locked down.

"Our turnover has dropped by 90 per cent," the president of the Huskisson chamber of commerce says. And he rattles off a list of nearby tourist towns on the edge of the locked down areas which are also hurting.

"All of these fringe towns have been affected in very much the same way: Gerringong, Gerroa, Berry, Huskisson and one would imagine further south like Milton and Ulladulla as well."

It's the same story north of Sydney in Port Stephens and the Hunter Valley, where seaside tour operators and wineries have been hit by the metropolitan lockdown. Likewise in Victoria, local businesses in regions like the Yarra Valley are still dealing with the impact of Melbourne's restrictions.

Huskisson's Mr Payne says most visitors to scenic Jervis Bay are from Sydney. But they're not the only ones staying away.

"Canberra people are a little bit scared that they may be locked out of ACT. Melbourne people have gone. You close the doors and it's like turning the tap off. We are affected in the same way as the actual lockdowns."

Danny Payne, president of the Huskisson chamber of commerce, saw turnover down 90 per cent in the first two weeks of the Sydney lockdown. Photo: John Hanscombe

Danny Payne, president of the Huskisson chamber of commerce, saw turnover down 90 per cent in the first two weeks of the Sydney lockdown. Photo: John Hanscombe

So, news of the targeted lockdown financial package announced on Tuesday, which extends beyond the Greater Sydney-Central Coast-Blue Mountains-Wollongong-Shellharbour hotspot, brings with it relief.

Relief, too, for micro business operators such as Kate Broadhurst, who operates a bed-and-breakfast in Huskisson.

"My stress levels have certainly gone down," she says shortly after the announcement. Before Tuesday, she and thousands like her across NSW, sole operators who turn over less than $75,000, felt overlooked as the Sydney lockdown bit.

"They seemed to have forgotten about the many thousands of very small businesses or micro businesses that operate the way we do and there are thousands of us in the regions - florists, makeup artists, naturopaths, paddle-board tours. We all just earn enough to have a reasonably nice life. We're not after big bucks. But that had become a massive disadvantage."

"It's been a shit year," she says, counting off bushfires, floods and the 2020 COVID lockdown as hurdles she's had to clear.

Overseas guests, who accounted for 50 per cent of her business between May and August, were locked out when the national border closed last March. Then a local COVID scare in August saw more cancellations.

She says she's not seen Huskisson as quiet as it's been during this recent city lockdown.

"I've spoken to a couple of other B&B owners and they've got no guests. I've spoken to holiday rental people, they've got no guests and no bookings. It's very scary and especially now as it looks as though it's going to be a month at least."

While the relief package has been welcomed in NSW, it has Victorians seething because they were not offered the same level of support during the recent two-week Melbourne lockdown.

Independent federal MP Dr Helen Haines' electorate of Indi is heavily reliant on visitation from the Victorian capital to underpin its economy.

Independent federal MP Helen Haines. Picture: James Wiltshire

Independent federal MP Helen Haines. Picture: James Wiltshire

She was so concerned there was no financial aid from the federal government during the last lockdown, she wrote to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on June 7.

"I request that you amend the Temporary Covid Disaster Payment Rules to include regional Victorians whose income continues to be impacted by the Melbourne lockdown," she wrote.

She did not receive a reply.

"I have multiple ski fields in my electorate and they rely heavily on the Melbourne visitation. No one from Melbourne was coming because of lockdown so essentially they were running the ski fields with nobody there but they weren't eligible for any of the federal government support," she says.

Wineries, boutique hotels and restaurants all suffered, with casual workers shouldering the burden with cancelled shifts.

Dr Haines says there has been a policy failure when it comes to aid for regions affected by city lockdowns.

"It's clear to me that as JobKeeper wound up, this idea of providing targeted support to businesses that would be impacted by future lockdowns hasn't been thought through."

Good governance, she says, should plan for all sorts of scenarios but she sees no evidence of this when looking at the regional impact of city lockdowns. The lockdowns, she adds, will be inevitable with a small proportion of the population vaccinated as the contagious Delta variant makes incursions.

"It is just policy on the run," she says.

"What I find disappointing is right at the beginning of this it was a first for everyone and we had to try and find policy responses quickly but we're now 19 months into this so I think most people would expect that policy makers would learn from what happened last time and make adjustments to policies that reflect the reality for people on the ground."

Peter Neville, who operates Flowerdale Estate in the Yarra Valley, says the regions suffer intensely when the cities are locked down. Picture: supplied.

Peter Neville, who operates Flowerdale Estate in the Yarra Valley, says the regions suffer intensely when the cities are locked down. Picture: supplied.

Peter Neville knows that reality well. He operates the Flowerdale Estate event centre in the Yarra Valley, which is almost entirely dependent on Melbourne for its income. He's had to cut back casual shifts, a move he says affects mostly women.

"They depend on that money," he says. "It's manifestly unfair."

During the extended Melbourne lockdown, he struck deals with fulltime skilled staff to keep paying them with help from JobKeeper and other business assistance grants. Praising the initial federal response to the pandemic last year, with JobKeeper, border closures and the relatively quick flattening of the COVID curve, he's not as complimentary now, giving the government "somewhere between a D-minus and an E".

"There's a fair bit of political dogma around lockdowns and that's why the federal government was reluctant to help out Victoria. If this hadn't happened in NSW, if it had happened in Western Australia I wonder what would have happened."

For Kay Sutherland, a casual kitchenhand at Flowerdale, watching the support roll out for NSW was a bitter pill to swallow. She lost a number of shifts in the recent Victorian lockdown and is still working reduced hours.

Kay Sutherland has lost many casual hours because of COVID lockdowns in Victoria.

Kay Sutherland has lost many casual hours because of COVID lockdowns in Victoria.

The sole income earner in her household, the loss of shifts has been hard.

"I've got a car to pay off and credit card bills like everyone else," she says. "I'm wondering how much more work am I going to get. Do I need to go and get another job?" I'm nearly 63 so that poses a few problems, It takes its toll mentally as well, worrying about what happens if we have another lockdown. It's worrying, depressing, you get anxiety from it sometimes, you don't sleep sometimes."

This story City lockdowns felt sharply in regions first appeared on The Canberra Times.