Main street businesses battling

A growing number of Tumut shops are closed until further notice, with sales moving online or by phone.

Walking down the retail stretch of Wynyard Street, a few shoppers make their way along the pavers, stopping at the chemist or grabbing a few loaves of bread from the bakery, but with every other storefront closed until further notice, there’s not much reason to be downtown any more.

“We certainly haven’t got people coming in, just browsing,” said Michelle Rossiter at Ground Up Tumut, one of the few retail shops still open on the main street.

Michelle, like most small business owners during the Covid-19 crisis, finds herself falling into a grey area. She’s still trading, earning too much for her to be able to claim a hardship, but too little to pay the bills and make it worth the health risk to her and family.

“I’m here with people all day and then going home [to three kids] and possibly spreading something,” she said.

“It leaves you a little bit vulnerable.”

Ground Up is still selling some bikes, and fixing plenty of tires for mums who are now teaching their kids at home, which means it’s worth keeping the shop open, but Michelle worries what she’ll do if things get worse and she still has to pay rent.

“I can understand why they’re doing it [referring to the government’s decision to keep small businesses open], I can see both sides,” she said.

“I wish they would just shut it down so we can be home with our kids, but it is a difficult one.”

Many Tumut shop owners were renegotiating their rental terms with commercial landlords on Monday after a raft of new government closures were announced on Sunday evening, urging people to stay home except for truly essential shopping and appointments. Michelle said she spoke to her landlord last week, before the new closures were announced.

The offer at that time was that the shop could pay 50% rent until the pandemic has passed. The catch is that they’d have to pay all the missed rent in arrears once the economy restarts. Michelle said that kind of a bill could put some businesses under just when they’re trying to get back on their feet.

“It does put a lot of pressure on us,” she said.

“Until we’re forced to close, it makes it very hard. We can’t claim hardship until all our savings and what we’ve made is gone.”

If restrictions get tighter, Michelle said she might have to block the entrance to the store and only allow one person at a time to come in and get what they need, or have Michelle find it for them while they wait outside.

“You’ve just got to remember that other people have it worse than us,” said Michelle.

Further along the street, bedrock Tumut businesses like The Abbey Footwear, The Loft Fashion House, Ella Bache, and Inside Out all posted signs saying the physical shops will be closed until further notice, with sales available online or by phone. Essential services, like banks and employment services had signs and tape on the floor, showing clients where they could stand in order to maintain social distancing protocols.

Other shops which haven’t closed have dramatically reduced their hours, with some posting signs they’ll only be open from 10am-2pm weekdays.

Local job coaches worry that they, too, might soon be out of work. While there’s a flood of work at the moment, registering hoardes of new JobSeekers who are applying for unemployment benefits through Centrelink, there aren’t any jobs for them to seek.

One local employment services provider said there are only a few jobs going with the forestries and Snowy Hydro, but they generally require certifications through TAFE and with TAFE currently pausing classes, that makes it difficult. The only other company hiring in the local area is Coles.

“It’s mostly locals looking after locals” said a provider, who asked not to be named. The source said many of the newly-created delivery jobs are going to people who have already been laid off. For example, a restaurant which has started offering delivery meals will likely offer those jobs to the staff they already had, rather than looking outside the business for someone new.

In the meantime, JobSeekers aren’t required to search for work until at least April 27, with the government recognising the majority of new Centrelink applicants are people who have lost their jobs due to Covid-19 and wouldn’t otherwise be out of work.