Omicron wave leaves businesses fighting for survival

Brendan Rees

Hospitality owners in Docklands say they are grappling with the COVID-19 Omicron variant which sparked a shortage of workers and lockdown-like conditions, which has kept 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.  

Businesses also said the virus had kept workers away who would otherwise be back in the office.

Connor Cunliffe, owner of Barlog Exrpresso at Waterview in Docklands, said the streets were largely deserted, with his business having been hit hard.

“Docklands is an absolute ghost town down where the café is,” he said.

“We’re just doing Thursday to Sunday … we’re losing more money opening down there than we would be if we were to stay shut.”

He said he operated another café in East Melbourne which was just helping him stay afloat.

Mr Cuncliffe said he had hoped the Docklands Drone Swarm would have drawn more customers but disappointingly there had been “nothing”.

“At this point, it’s just been killed.”

Akshay Bhatia of Victoria Star Cruises said while the drone show was a much welcome activation, the state government’s ban on dancefloors meant his business was “essentially closed.”



“We can technically operate, but no-one wants to go on a party boat or a charter vessel and not be able to dance, so that’s really hurt our business,” he said.

Mr Bhatia said it was a “very disappointing” start to the year, adding “we’re looking at different opportunities of what we can do to flexibly adapt the business through these times.”

“We had very high hopes and the drone show was part of our marketing material.”

Peter Mastro, co-owner of Salumisti, which specialises in corporate breakfasts, lunches, and event catering, said instead of their usual clientele of office workers their business was now reliant on locals which, fortunately, he said were “very loyal.”

But he added, “At the end of the day, we have to get corporates to work. This self-imposed lockdown that we’re in is kind of absurd now.”


We had our [vaccination] shots, we’re having our boosters, we’re doing the right things, wearing our masks, washing our hands – what more can we do?


“The government needs to start by getting their own people back.”

He added while there was “definitely people around at night” because of the drone show in Docklands, “it’s not helping us. They come, they watch the drones, they go home. We’re not open at night-time.”

John Scarda, co-owner of Berth and Cargo restaurants on Victoria Harbour, said drone show had been a “fantastic” activation and a “really positive thing for Docklands”.

“You can see that patronage is down in the area, but the drone show has definitely taken that pressure off us at the moment,” he said.

“I think the City of Melbourne have got to be given credit where credit is due. The drone show has been really, really great.”

But he added the Omicron wave had “put a lot of strain on what was already been pretty stressful times, but we’ve got through it and lucky we haven’t had to really shut too much”.

Docklands Chamber of Commerce executive officer Shane Wylie said while the drone show has been a “great success”, it had also “highlighted the long-term crisis we are facing.”

“Had this been done three years ago the crowds would have filtered through restaurants and bars, eating, drinking, and adding to the economy.”

“Now, all anyone wants to do is go home, order Uber Eats and take their mask off with their loved ones. We’re in for a long cultural change to get Docklands back to vitality.”

“We’re simply not back to an entertainment and going out culture,” he said, adding “many businesses are telling the chamber that Omicron is actually worse than the lockdowns.”

“The reasons being is that there was government support during the lockdowns for staff and rent, while now there is nothing. Footfall and pedestrian traffic still sit at minimal levels, then on a busy night many businesses can’t operate at full capacity due to staff shortages.”

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,” she said.

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

The state government recently extended its commercial tenancy relief scheme to allow small to medium businesses experiencing hardship by coronavirus to defer rent. 

But City of Melbourne councillor and small business portfolio lead, Jason Chang, said it had still been a “huge struggle” for businesses who were “trying to cover their debt” •

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