‘Running on the smell of an oily rag,’ Small business crippled by coronavirus, government bushfire grant provides little relief

The federal government has announced a $10,000 grant for small businesses which were indirectly affected by bushfires this year. The news provides some small relief for struggling Snowy Valleys owner/operators, but it’s a drop in the bucket as coronavirus isolation dampens what little hope many were holding onto.

“I’m running on the smell of an oily rag,” said Steve Stunkel from Batlow-based delivery business Pass the Parcel. For the past six years, he’s delivered everything from lightbulbs and newspapers to furniture and equipment to customers across the Snowy Valleys.

That’s changing.

“This corona thing will kill me. It’ll be the end of my business. What’s ten grand going to do?”

While most people are staying indoors, away from others, Steve continues to make his rounds, doing the opposite of what people have been encouraged to do. He doesn’t have much choice and doesn’t see it lasting much longer.

“I’ll shut I reckon probably in the next 6 months. I’ll shut my doors,” he said.

Mr Stunkel was previously rejected for a bushfire impact grant and he still doesn’t understand why. He lost close to $10,000 worth of revenue during the fires, but hasn’t received any help. After filling out the forms, including profit and loss statements and earnings projections, Steve said he felt like the people sitting in offices somewhere crunching the numbers would barely have even noticed him.

The new $10,000 grant is aimed at helping business owners like Steve; people who weren’t flame-affected, but were essentially shut down by the fires. For Steve, road closures around Batlow and Tumbarumba kept him from being able to deliver to his customers for weeks. Several of his biggest customers are also tied into the forestry industry, which suffered significantly during the fires and dropped demand for Steve’s services.

“It’s just a really, really bad state of affairs and now to have this happen as well, this is going to kill a lot of companies,” he said.

“In the next week or two the schools will shut down and then at least one parent will have to stay home to take care of the kids.

“I can’t see a grant helping anybody.”

The grant, announced this week by Deputy Premier and Minister responsible for Disaster Recovery John Barilaro, is for businesses who have experienced a 40 per drop cent in revenue over a three-month period, compared to the previous year, as a result of the bushfires. 

“Our initial calculations are that about 20,000 NSW small businesses will be eligible for this new grant and we have made this application process as easy as possible,” said Mr Barilaro.

Other grants of up to $50,000 are also available for small businesses that have been directly impacted by the fires, along with concessional loans of up to $500,000 for some small businesses.

Mr Stunkel said he won’t even bother applying for any more grants. Even if he was successful, trust is at an all-time low and he said most small businesses aren’t in a position to take the chance that they might get something wrong and have to pay the government back thousands of dollars.

“By the time you do all the paperwork and you have to provide profit and loss statements, and you have to foresee how much money you would have earned and how much money you would have lost, and if it came over or under you were liable, that puts people off,” he said. “That’s like a dictatorship.

“You’re too frightened really to say anything, because what happens in the long run.”

With a wife and two kids to support, Steve said he’ll keep making his deliveries as long as he can, but it’s too late for him to worry about grants or advertising, because he’s not sure he’ll have customers in the longterm. He foresees most people turning to big businesses and online shopping as they live in isolation.

“In the last 12 months, I’ve just taken a real big hit. One thing after the other,” said Steve.

“It was drought then fires then this disease

“Next thing we’ll have a pestilence I think. It’s biblical.”

The Stunkels are trying to stay upbeat, but Steve said it’s likely he’ll eventually look for work in the orchards or the mills, if there’s anything going. The only way he can sees a grant helping is if he can use it to pay off debts and close his doors; but then he worries he’d have to pay the money back.

“We don’t live long enough to be doom and gloom. Not many things get me down,” said Steve.

“I do every now and then have a little private cry. I don’t like to let too many people see my soft side.

“I just enjoy life and try to make good of a bad situation, but this pretty serious.”

At the Adelong Cafeteria, Rick Singh said he saw some hope when business started to pick up after the fires. The shop was closed for two and half days during the worst of the blaze, when power was cut off. Mr Singh had just received a delivery of $2,800 worth of perishables the day before the closure. When they came back to work, they had to dispose of $3,500 worth of stock in total, including full fridges of milk and ice creams.

“We had virtually nothing left when we opened the café the next day,” said Rick.

“It has been very quiet since then. It started picking up a bit and now the corona started. It’s making it worse.

“The whole area is struggling.”

During a typical day in any other March, the Adelong Cafeteria serves 150 to 200 people last week, that dropped again, down to roughly 75 people a day. On Tuesday morning at 9am, an hour and a half after opening, Rick had only seen four customers.

With new government warnings every day, encouraging social distancing and staying at home, the Cafeteria may have to close until the panic passes.

“We are not sure how long we have to shut the shop for,” said Rick. “It depends how bad it gets and how quickly it gets bad. It’s not looking great in the future anyway.”

Mr Singh was pleased to hear about the new grant and intended to apply. Before the fires, the Cafeteria employed seven people. Three have quit in the past few weeks because there wasn’t enough work for them. Rick promised to call them when business picked up again.

“I just told them when it gets busy, definitely I will call them back.”

He doesn’t know when that will be.