There has been a mix of relief and resentment amongst the West Australian business community over the state government’s decision to indefinitely delay its border reopening.
- For many businesses the delay means frustration and hardship is ahead
- For others, it means they can operate without fear of widespread illness
- There are hopes a local holiday-maker boom will continue
Premier Mark McGowan had said the February 5 reopening date was locked in barring “some unforeseen emergency or catastrophe which we can’t predict”.
But with just 16 days to go, the Premier delayed those plans indefinitely citing the escalating health risks posed by the Omicron COVID-19 variant.
Rochelle Hosking heads up a national spit roast catering business, with her son Jack the owner of the Perth franchise.
She said the setting of the date — and the Premier’s assertions it would stick — gave people the certainty to schedule major functions like weddings, and the Hoskings had been gearing up for a big few months.
All that had now been thrown into limbo.
‘How long do we tread water?’
“These weddings probably will postpone again, but until when? And how long do we have to tread water for?” Ms Hosking said.
“We don’t know when this border is going to open. We’re concerned for financial hardship.”
Ms Hosking said she also had not been able to travel to Perth to assist her son with his business.
“He went over there as a 25-year-old young man. He doesn’t have any family or friends in Perth,” she said.
“So he hasn’t been able to have that support many other people have.
“We haven’t been able to come over and help Jack through any of his busy periods or any of his trying times because the border has been shut.”
Ms Hosking said her son’s company employed 20 staff in Perth who were anxious about what would come next.
“They’re all ringing and they’re all worried. But we still don’t know, we still don’t know what’s going to happen.
“This is our sole business. This is what we rely on.”
Others welcome move to restrict COVID
Perth chef and business owner Melissa Palinkas said she was happy with the decision, after watching her hospitality friends in the eastern states struggle in recent weeks.
“Nobody wants to go out and all their staff are sick. They can’t operate on full capacity and people are just dropping like flies,” she told ABC Radio Perth.
But she said it had been tough to staff her restaurants from a limited workforce pool.
“We’re usually a brigade of about nine, we’re down to five including myself. There’s no staff,” she said.
“But we just have to keep soldiering on.”
Perth bar owner David Heaton said he had mixed emotions about the delay.
“It feels a little bit like a stay of execution,” he said.
“Perhaps it buys us a little bit more time to create a softer landing for us when we do eventually open up.”
Mr Heaton said the same questions businesses were asking of the government about what would happen after February 5 still remained, even without a new date.
“Certainty is what we need — things like what the contact tracing rules are going to be, whether there’s any government assistance should we have to close down a venue,” he said.
“The first thing we need to do is to define what a close contact is and how we’re going to limit the spread and minimise disruption to business.”
Premier said the government would roll out those rules “in the course of the next week or so”.
Events industry ‘devastated’
The WA events industry has operated under a stop-start approach throughout much of the pandemic, with event organisers and their suppliers reeling from last night’s decision.
“February 5 was widely considered to be a chance for us to try and get back to some sense of normality,” Events Industry Association chair Tim Kennedy said.
“The reality is that these event organisers now staring down the barrel at even more losses after two years of consistent blows.
“The policies are being made on a reactive basis, which is making it absolutely impossible for us to do business in such an uncertain environment.”
Mr Kennedy said without an adequate reopening plan, WA would miss out on hosting events of all sorts.
“The Premier said February 5 was set in stone and two weeks out, he’s gone and changed the goalposts on us yet again.
“The reality is that at the moment, even if there is a plan that comes forward, it’s going to be incredibly hard for the industry to trust that.”
Trust in Premier lost: tour operator
Dylan Lodge, who runs tours of the Kimberley region, said he had been fielding cancellations all morning.
With no reopening date set and 90 per cent of his business coming from interstate, he was expecting more to file in.
“It’s a shocking decision that we struggle to understand,” he said.
Mr Lodge said it had troubling impacts for the livelihood of staff members with young families he had hired from other states.
“These are people that have moved out of a job they’re currently in and are looking at coming to work for our company, and now it’s been pulled out from underneath us but also them and their young families,” he said.
Mr Lodge said the Premier and the WA government had lost “all trust” from the tourism and hospitality sector.
Another Kimberley tour operator, Colin Fitzgerald, said he was concerned about the survival of tourism businesses in the state.
“We can’t just sit there and say ‘well the government’s gonna help us out’, because I don’t see that as an option,” he said.
“We’ve just gotta look at other ways to make a living and keep employing our staff, and it’s the staff that are hurting a lot because now it’s the third year they don’t have jobs.”
Mr Fitzgerald said WA was lagging behind the rest of the world who had accepted the reality of living with COVID-19.
“The rest of the world got on with their life and it seems West Australia, we’re just in a little mothball,” he said.
Mr McGowan said local tourism businesses were doing much better than their eastern states counterparts.
“Our tourism industry is the strongest in Australia because we’ve had measures to keep COVID out and keep people spending,” he said.
“Hospitality has gone gangbusters because we’ve kept COVID out.
“The truth is that tourism in the eastern states is in freefall because they have so much COVID that people aren’t travelling, people aren’t going out, people aren’t holidaying … travel spend has gone through the floor.”
Hopes of ongoing domestic tourism boom
Exmouth resort owner David Gillespie said the northern WA town had benefited from a domestic tourism boom while the border had been shut, and he was relieved by last night’s announcement.
Like much of the state, Exmouth has struggled with worker shortages, and Mr Gillespie said he was concerned the spread of COVID-19 would put pressure on the staff they had.
“It is welcoming news at this point in time,” he said.
“As a town we’re struggling for staff, we’re struggling for accommodation to house our staff.
“We will have some eastern states people that have booked but I think they will make those decisions to cancel, and what’s been cancelled will be taken up by the Western Australian public.”
Fears skills shortage will worsen
But the industry group Business Council of Australia said WA’s decision to keep its borders shut was a “national setback”.
“The virus is here to stay and the longer restrictions stay in place, the bigger the damage to the economy and to peoples’ mental health and wellbeing,” the association’s Sydney based president Tim Reed said.
“Every day we remain a collection of divided states damages our reputation as a good place to invest and create jobs, not to mention the incredible toll it is taking on families divided by state lines and businesses dependent on inbound travel.”
Mr Reed said the delay would compound the skills shortages being experienced in WA.
The Premier argued opening the borders would in fact devastate the economy.
“I know there’s this argument that somehow opening the borders would strengthen the economy. It would do exactly the opposite,” Mr McGowan said.
“Because of the huge influx of cases that would occur on the first day and every day afterwards, we’d have huge amounts of COVID, there’d be massive numbers of people not going to work, there’d be lots of people who were self-quarantining.”