Federal cash cut-off leaves Victorian businesses in limbo

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Continuing COVID restrictions will leave many Victorian businesses unable to trade for months after their federal government financial lifeline is cut off in November.

The events, hospitality and entertainment sectors are set to be the hardest hit when, two weeks after 80 per cent of eligible Victorians are double vaccinated, Commonwealth money stops flowing but trading restrictions remain in place.

Palace Cinemas chief executive Benjamin Zeccola says “cinemas will continue to struggle”.Credit:Eddie Jim

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Thursday that the Morrison government was acting on the “best medical and the best economic advice” by withdrawing its business support funding and COVID-19 Disaster Payment after the jabs target – expected in early November – is met.

The announcement, made in a press release released on Wednesday evening and signed by Mr Frydenberg and Victorian ministers Martin Pakula and Tim Pallas, pledged another $2.27 billion of state and federal money designed to help about 160,000 businesses survive the next six weeks but said that the supports would end soon after.

But the state government’s road map out of lockdown limits businesses to 150 patrons indoors and 500 outdoors after 80 per cent of the adult population has been fully vaccinated with no end-date for the caps.

Premier Daniel Andrews said the state government was “disappointed” by what he called a “binary and simplistic approach” to business and income support by the Commonwealth.

“I certainly hope that there’s no business support needed after 80 per cent, that’d be terrific,” Mr Andrews said. “But you know, stomping your foot and saying there shall be no more payments made. That’s not leadership. That’s what the federal government is up to, but it’s not leadership.”

The events industry, one of the sectors hardest hit by Melbourne’s long lockdowns during the past 18 months, does not expect to be operating at any meaningful capacity until February at the earliest.

Simon Thewlis from the industry group Save Victorian Events said the entire sector remained in limbo after a round table meeting with the government last week failed to produce even an approximate date to restart.

“People with larger events coming up over the next few months are just absolutely beside themselves because they don’t know if their events happening over summer are going to be allowed,” Mr Thewlis told The Age.

“We can see with the announcement overnight that final financial support is stopping, potentially two or three months before the work will be starting for many people.”

Palace Cinemas chief executive Benjamin Zeccola said he was concerned with the “lack of synchronisation between the easing of restrictions and the elimination of support”.

The main problem will be the ongoing restrictions under Victoria’s road map, he said, which continues to limit the number of patrons to 150 people, regardless of whether it’s a 1000 or a 155-seat room.

He said, “cinemas will continue to struggle”, particularly larger venues such as the Astor Theatre which are required to operate at “a wildly inefficient level”.

Restrictions should be matched to the threat of transmission, Mr Zeccola said, emphasising cinemas had a good record, high air circulation and ample cleaning.

“Even when COVID-positive, Delta-positive patrons were in attendance at the cinema with no masks on, it did not spread,” he said, pointing to examples at Crown casino and Bondi Junction in NSW.

Jason Marriner, chief executive of Marriner Group, said the federal government support had been a significant benefit, particularly for casual staff members without any work available to them. But the theatre group, which runs the Forum, the Princess, Regent and Comedy theatres, needed to get back to work if the payments were no longer flowing.

“We very quickly have to be able to resume work, otherwise we’ll have an exodus of staff. People will have to, by necessity, be finding work elsewhere,” Mr Marriner said.

Jason Marriner at the Regent Theatre during last year’s lockdown.Credit: Supplied

The group relies heavily on casual employees, whose full-time work has disappeared under lockdown.

“It becomes hyper critical … that we in Victoria need to be able to resume confidently but safely.”

Mr Marriner said it was important to be able to return to rehearsing with enough lead time ahead of performances.

He said there are “some great events for Melburnians to return to the theatre” such as Moulin Rouge! and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and audiences could be confident of “COVID-safe plans in place to keep everybody safe”.

Mr Frydenberg was asked at a press conference on Thursday about the wisdom of announcing the withdrawal of the federal funding when Victoria’s latest outbreak had spiralled to more than 1400 cases in a single day.

“If it’s not 80 per cent double-dosed vaccination when we bring to an end the COVID Disaster Payment and the business support payments, then when is it?” he said.

“When is it that the government can stop spending one-and-a-half billion dollars a week on these emergency support measures and when is it that people can get their lives back and the lockdowns can be lifted?”

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