‘One outbreak affects a whole community’: Restaurants say being identified as a COVID-19 hotspot hurts business, but their customers are rallying around them

  • Business owners say that being listed as a location where a COVID-19 case has been can hurt business for weeks after.
  • Complicated messaging and coronavirus news fatigue are both making it difficult for businesses to communicate with their customers about public health orders and the steps they’ve taken to mitigate risk.
  • Matinee Cafe and Thai Rock in Sydney were both listed as potential COVID-19 hotspots, and both reported business difficulties afterwards.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Running a business in a pandemic means there’s a chance that a patron infected with COVID-19 could visit your premises.

As part of the effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus, state health authorities have been publishing lists of locations people with COVID-19 have visited while infectious.

Understandably, being publicly listed as a COVID-19 hotspot can have a serious impact on the business.

In July, NSW Health issued a public health alert for Matinee Coffee in Marrickville in Sydney’s inner west. Patrons and staff who were at the cafe during two short windows of time were advised to isolate and get tested if they developed symptoms.

Once Matinee Coffee reopened after a deep clean, owner Charles Cameron noticed an immediate effect on business.

“Not only did we have to close as soon as we were notified by NSW health, but the following day when we re-opened, a Friday, there was a 60% drop-off in business,” he said.

“Going into the weekend, it was looking like a 50% drop off and then a 40% drop off. A few weeks later, we’re trading at about two-thirds of what we were before the incident.”

For a business associated with a major COVID-19 cluster, the impact was even greater. On 17 July, NSW Health published a public health alert about Thai Rock restaurant in Wetherill Park, after both a staff member and customer tested positive.

Since then, more than 150 cases have been linked to the cluster which also includes another Thai Rock restaurant in Potts Point.

The owners of the restaurants, Stephanie and David Boyd, say the cases have devastated their business.

Already affected by coronavirus restrictions, they’ve closed the venues since being notified by NSW Health and don’t plan to open until September.

“You can imagine what it’s like when you close two venues for such a long period of time. Bills mounting, with absolutely nothing coming in,” David said.

Since they were required to self-isolate as soon as they were tested, staff weren’t allowed to go back to the restaurants to clean food out of the freezers. They estimate thousands of dollars worth of supplies were spoiled and had to be binned once they were allowed to visit the venue again.

The pair were shocked when their insurance company wouldn’t cover the losses, because it was linked to the pandemic.

“We were already running at a grossly reduced income, and obviously the main costs like rent still continued. Even now, we owe rent from before the cases. You keep soldiering on and think that things will get better, but you run the risk every day that someone could come in with a case.”

The couple said the news — which, as the state’s biggest cluster, has been extensively covered by the media – has affected the business of the whole community.

“All our neighbours, they’ve got no customers coming through. One outbreak affects a whole community,” Stephanie said.

This is the general experience of venues listed as COVID-19 hotspots, said Restaurant and Catering Association of Australia CEO Wes Lambert.

“When a restaurant or business is found to be a COVID hot spot, it can be a shock to the business, even though they are following COVID Safe guidelines and plans,” he said.

This knock-on effect to surrounding businesses was also seen at Matinee. As the first cafe in the area to be listed as a location where a COVID-19 case had attended, Cameron had to educate members of the community about what it meant for their safety.

NSW Health said visitors to Matinee Coffee should merely monitor for symptoms, rather than self-isolate and get tested. None of Matinee Coffee’s staff tested positive for COVID-19.

Despite this, customers – particularly those who had been there at the same time as the COVID-19 case – were concerned and unclear about what to do.

“Trying to get people to engage with sophisticated messaging from NSW Health was difficult, and people started to get COVID news fatigue. There was a lot that was beyond the scope of an independently run cafe,” he said.

Similarly, Stephanie and David say they’ve had to battle against misconceptions and misinformation about the cluster. The restaurants were bombarded with angry, online reviews, blaming them for the outbreak.

“People were very critical, claiming we didn’t observe any guidelines and that’s why people were infected, which is not true. We followed the guidelines,” Stephanie said.

“The cases have nothing to do with cleanliness. You could have the cleanest or the dirtiest place, and COVID-19 could still come. It’s irrelevant, but some people associate it with being unclean,” David said.

Cameron said that he spoke often with the local state MP, Jenny Leong, and the Inner West Council, who were able to use their channels to help promote the business and help address locals’ concerns.

He said that NSW Health gave clear instructions about the necessary steps to open back up, but that was the extend of the support. Deep cleaning, for example, was entirely left up to the venue.

“Being a hospitality business, we had all the chemicals and equipment on hand. But will NSW come out? No they won’t. Is there some government deep cleaning task force? No. But they will talk you through how to physically decontaminate your business,” he said.

Cameron said that opportunistic businesses began cold-calling Matinee Coffee, offering cleaning services at inflated prices.

And while some people are choosing to steer clear of places listed as COVID-19 hot spots, others are choosing to support them through a tough time for the business.

Lambert said he’s seen examples of local people and nearby businesses promoting locations once they’ve re-opened to help them get back on their feet.

“The businesses that have found themselves as hot spots have been featured in the news. And, so far, after the initial stories, they’ve let us know that their communities have rallied around the businesses to assist in the recovery,” he said.

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Good morning everyone! As you know we’ve reopened for yummy coffee, food and sweets. Thanks to all of you who’ve popped in to support us! If you’d like to help us, but need to do so from afar for now, please consider: ????Ordering takeaway by calling us on 9519 7591 ????Ordering delivery via Uber eats, deliveroo or Menulog ❤️Liking or commenting on our posts ????Contacting media outlets who are giving out incorrect info (thanks D and S) ????Recommending us to your friends and family ????A friendly wave at our staff as you pass by ????Staying safe, kind and calm We will see you soon! #Repost @kunsin ・・・ M A T I N E E noun. an entertainment, especially a dramatic or musical performance, held in the daytime, usually in the afternoon. – dictionary.com What I experienced was in the morning though and let me tell you, it couldn’t have been a better time – I mean…just look at the “barista’s breakfast” above…gorgeous…absolutely gorgeous and it was an incredible start to the day. Everything I needed to start my day was there, great coffee, great food and the friendliest of people in the hospo industry. @matineecoffee is awesome. Pay them a visit, show them love, enjoy great coffee and food. Peace. ☕❤✌

A post shared by Matinee Coffee (@matineecoffee) on

That was Cameron’s experience, too. He said that customers have made an effort to support Matinee Coffee when restrictions first happened, and then again once they were listed as having a COVID-19 case attending.

“On the whole, those who have been working from home have really engaged with us. They’ve been like ‘we’re lucky to have jobs, we’re going to support the community financially and through social media’,” he said.

While Thai Rock restaurants haven’t opened yet, they’ve been told the community will get behind them once they open — and they’re banking on it.

“We haven’t taken any bookings yet, we just don’t know. But the local communities in both situations are telling us that they’ll support us if we come back. We’ll see how it goes,” David said.

For Matinee Coffee and Thai Rock restaurants, programs like the government’s JobKeeper have helped them to stay afloat while operations have been disrupted. Cameron calls it a “lifesaver, particularly for those who’ve had a little PR mishap like us.”

“It was a very interesting experience. Something we’ll be able to bounce back from, but, very stressful nevertheless,” Cameron said.