Canberra businesses are concerned that the loss of expected Christmas and New Year custom from Sydney and other COVID-19 hotspots will mean a severe financial downturn at the end of what has already been a precarious year for many.
The Inner-South Business Council (ISBC), representing businesses and employees, has called on the ACT Government to provide further support once the first stage of the ChooseCBR vouchers ends on Thursday 24 December.
The government had allocated half a million dollars’ worth of discount vouchers to be spent by 21 December; the scheme was extended to Christmas Eve, following only modest uptake.
Businesses understood that public health measures must be taken for the greater good of the community, ISBC chairman John-Paul Romano said. However, they were concerned that patrons from Greater Sydney – who make up a large proportion of trade during the Christmas-New Year period – would not be coming, due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Some business owners are calling me concerned that their trade could be down 25% over this period, due to a loss of their regular Sydney customers and those who would have travelled to Canberra for holidays, business, politics, and other purposes,” he said.
Mr Romano owns the Italian Brothers deli, café and wine bar in Manuka.
The ISBC also wants the Government to implement a strategy to help the local retail, hospitality and hotels sector quickly in case of further restrictions, which Mr Romano believes are likely over the next year.
Leanne Castley, Shadow Minister for Business, also called on Labor and the Greens to explain what they would do to support small and family businesses.
“The Labor-Greens Government’s ChooseCBR voucher scheme hasn’t lived up to expectations. With further COVID restrictions on travel, the business community need more support.”
Tara Cheyne, Minister for Business, responded: “2020 has been a difficult year for Canberra businesses. The ACT Government moved quickly to support businesses from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we will continue to support businesses through the remainder of the pandemic.”
Ms Cheyne suggested that the domestic dollar could balance the loss of tourist revenue. “While there may be fewer people from Sydney travelling to Canberra, there may be more Canberrans than usual holidaying at home.”
The Choose CBR digital discount program had been an important boost for local businesses heavily affected by COVID-19, Ms Cheyne said. Over $250,000 of discounts (i.e. half) have been claimed, resulting in more than $1.5 million flowing into local business.
The Government has committed to a full implementation of the program in 2021, Ms Cheyne said; a second phase worth $2 million will follow next year.
The ISBC wondered why alcohol was excluded from the ChooseCBR voucher program.
“Licensed venues had some of the biggest falls in trade due to Covid-19 restrictions, and are likely to be the first businesses affected if there is another wave of restrictions implemented,” Mr Romano said.
Ms Cheyne replied that the ACT Government had a responsibility to ensure that the products and messages that it promoted were suitable and appropriate for the broader population, and were in line with the values of the Canberra community and Government objectives.
ChooseCBR vouchers could not be spent on alcohol, but licensed venues provided non-alcoholic products and services, which were covered by the discounts.
Outdoor dining was another option the Government encouraged businesses to try, particularly in summer. The Government had introduced a free 12-month trial for outdoor dining on 1 February, and waived all existing outdoor dining permit fees for businesses for 2020–21.
The ACT Government, Ms Cheyne continued, had provided more financial and practical support for businesses: waivers and rebates; establishing the Canberra Region Business Advice and Support Service, which provides up to four hours of free tailored assistance; and appointing a COVID-19 Local Business Commissioner to mediate between businesses and their landlords.
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