Before Covid turned the world upside down, Marino Plagiotis’ bustling CBD cafe was booked out on Fridays.
But now, the city is so quiet that it has had no choice but to cut back on staff at the end of the week and, like many other small businesses in inner Sydney, it’s a struggle just to break even.
Plagiotis, who runs the Hungry Bean Cafe on Clarence St, told news.com.au that workers were avoiding the office on Mondays and Fridays after COVID-19 and that the trend, along with months of bad weather and ongoing strikes in public transportation, small businesses were devastated.
“We have a large cafe with 140 chairs and we have been here for many, many years. Before the world sneezed we would be booked up for Wednesday and most cafes and restaurants anywhere in the CBD would have extra staff called in on Fridays because it was the best day of the week. Now it’s the exact opposite: It’s the worst day, followed by Monday,” she said.
“People need five days a week (of earnings), not three; if it’s only three days, how do you handle a profit?
“The best thing most companies are doing is just paying the bills and keeping their heads above water, I don’t think there are many that are killing it every week.”
He said the impact was so severe that many businesses had already collapsed.
“On this street alone there are six or seven cafes that will never come back… a lot of business owners are sick of paying rent when out of 100 workers on an office floor, only five show up on a Friday,” he said.
“Others are stuck: They can’t make more money even if they wanted to once things get busier because they can’t hire more staff, there aren’t enough workers.”
He said some restaurants were only opening at limited capacity because they no longer had the staff to serve a full venue, and most workers were taking on additional duties as a result of staffing shortages.
Companies facing ‘financial ruin’
The situation is not new, as Sydney Independent MP Alex Greenwich wrote to former Small Business Minister Eleni Petinos in July asking for “urgent assistance in protecting small business owners in the central business district from financial ruin” .
Mr Greenwich, who previously raised the same concerns with the Treasurer in January, explained that the latest wave of omicron had “widespread and deep impacts on small
CBD businesses,” with downtown precincts hit by “significantly reduced numbers of workers and visitors.”
“A number of small CBD business operators have contacted me about significant financial issues.
difficulties due to the current Covid-19 pandemic,” he wrote.
“They tell me they signed commercial leases when the central business district was packed with hundreds of thousands of office workers and visitors, but have faced more than two years of closures, work-from-home policies and fear of the community to leave that they have cut. trade and income, but not reduced costs.”
“Small business operators who have contacted me say that the owners have only agreed to
small rent reductions for very short periods, leaving them paying full rent despite
business loss. They say they have accumulated significant debt and are at business risk
failure and bankruptcy.
“Business hardship grants, government fee rebates, expanded outdoor dining space, and
Dine and Discover Vouchers Failed to Stop CBD Small Business Owners from Rising in Debt
and again I urge you to extend government aid to protect business owners from ruin until
pandemic conditions are definitely over.”
Sadly, in the weeks since that letter was first written, the situation has only worsened as workers and visitors moved out of the city during August, as ongoing public transport strikes brought the city to a regular standstill.
Companies ‘will not survive’
It’s a situation Business Sydney CEO Paul Nicolaou is all too familiar with, explaining to news.com.au that it was a “sad” sight walking through Sydney’s CBD on Monday and Friday after Covid.
“Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are manic, but you don’t see many people on Mondays and Fridays,” he said.
“It’s quite sad to be honest – a lot of small and medium business owners are quite depressed because they depend on people coming into town on weekdays as they don’t open on Saturday and Sunday.
“Coffee shops, restaurants, hair salons, dry cleaners, shoe repair shops, newsstands, pharmacies, you name it, they are all fighting back.
“They trust to pass the trade and when people don’t come, they really suffer.”
Nicolaou said many companies were seeing profits fall by as much as 50 percent on Mondays and Fridays and there was a “100 percent” chance some “would not survive.”
“Power bills are going up, the cost of food and drinks is going up and they are struggling to find staff,” he said.
“Big businesses like Star and Crown casinos will survive, but small business owners are struggling big time.”
Nicolaou is now pushing for the state government, the largest employer in NSW, to order public servants to return to the office at least three or four days a week to increase foot traffic in the CBD.
He is also advocating for the reintroduction of the NSW government’s $25 “Thank God It’s Friday” lunch vouchers that were stopped when the Omicron variant went through the state.
He would also like to see free public transport on Fridays or Mondays for six months to boost the city’s economy, saying work must be done if Sydney is to maintain its position as the “number one city in Asia-Pacific”. .