Melbourne might be known for its temperamental weather but, for summer 2020, you may well be experiencing your favourite pub in the street, or even a local park, following the Victorian government's announcement that outdoor dining will be a key focus for the reopening of hospitality.
Today, the state government announced a $290 million package aimed at repurposing hospitality spaces and supporting the entertainment industry and sole traders. The announcement includes $100 million directed at Melbourne’s CBD which will see laneways, public parks and potentially some streets refurbished to make way for diners; this includes $30 million towards creating COVIDSafe events and cultural activities designed to attract visitors back to the CBD. A further $87.5 million has been committed to support similar measures outside the city.
Premier Dan Andrews said at today’s press conference that the policy to boost alfresco dining would likely reshape the city for some years to come and was modelled on a similar policy in New York, where the Open Restaurant Program has transformed parts of the city.
"If you look at places like New York,” Andrews said at today’s press conference, "they have been able to get their hospitality sector back to something approaching normal, faster than what would otherwise have been the case, because they have used the footpath, curb side parking and taken public space and turned it into pop-up cafes, restaurants, bars."
Grants of up to $5,000 will be available to licensed and unlicensed cafés, restaurants, takeaway food businesses, pubs, taverns, bars and clubs with a payroll of less than $3 million to pay for umbrellas, outdoor furniture, screens and other equipment required to move to outdoor dining. More than 11,000 businesses are eligible to benefit, with funding also set aside for councils across the state as part of the Outdoor Eating and Entertainment Package.
The idea of turning more public spaces over to outdoor hospitality is an enticing prospect for Melburnians who've spent most of 2020 cooped up inside, but concerns have been raised.
“We would have to get to an opening up of indoors really quickly so that venues become viable,” says David Canny, president the Victorian branch of the Australian Hotels Association (AHA), pointing out that outdoor dining isn't going to work for many businesses.
The association has roughly 1400 members in Victoria, close to half of which are outside Melbourne, and David says the reopening of the regions has been a major focus. The Premier hinted today that regional Victoria may open as early as tomorrow (Tuesday) but said any announcement would not come before new COVID case numbers were low enough.
“Some of these regional areas have had zero cases so we need to support those places that should be open,” David says.
Monday's announcement follows the unveiling of a support package totalling $3 billion on Sunday, including the $251 million dedicated Licensed Venue Fund, which is set to provide grants of between $10,000 and $30,000 to licensed venues of all shapes and sizes. Liquor license fees are also being waived for 2021.
Yet a lack of clarity over the future – as well as doubts over just how achievable the current targets are within Victoria's roadmap to reopening – remains an ongoing concern. As things stand, the state needs to record zero new cases in the community for fourteen days for venues to open with a maximum of 50 patrons indoors, with yet-to-be-defined limits on outdoors. Under those conditions, it might only require one outbreak in Victoria for the state to be returned to stage 3 restrictions.
Iain Ling, owner of The Lincoln and Superling in Carlton, says hospitality businesses are already "on life support" and risk being on their knees by early 2021.
"Unless we have a realistic reopening plan, all we are doing is making debt for our children," he says.
Other pressures loom too, with business owners warning the impending reduction in JobKeeper rates could send more Victorians below the poverty line, while many of the support measures to date are seen as pushing problems into the future rather than looking to solve them. Furthermore, the longer the current situation extends, the greater the risk of division within the wider industry as producers continue to explore new routes for getting their products into customers' hands and, in some cases, do so at prices lower than those traditional retailers can offer.
Concerns over just how Melbourne’s hospitality industry will reopen led to the launch of the Melbourne Small Bar Association (MSBA) last week, which includes among its members good beer haunts like Fixation's Incubator in Collingwood, Footscray’s Bar Josephine and the Royal Mail in West Melbourne.
Peter Cornwell, from Masterson’s Bar in Moonee Ponds, is a founding member of the association and says it was launched due to worries that smaller bars could fall through the cracks as the government makes decisions on reopening the hospitality sector.
“I don’t think the government acknowledges we exist but when you go into the city, everyone wants to go to a hidden bar,” Peter says.
“The hard-to-get-to is the perfect thing for Melbourne but we just feel like we’re not getting looked after.”
Peter gives the example of Victoria reopening on June 1 – when we published this feature warning of the potential damage a second lockdown could cause – as highlighting the different problems smaller venues face compared to large pubs, not to mention the challenges that come with trying to find a solution that works for such a diverse industry. While economically it might not make sense for larger venues with kitchens to reopen with as few as ten people, he says smaller bars can make that work: “There’s whisky joints in the city that are lucky to hold twelve in normal times.”
He adds that the requirement for venues to serve food with alcohol poses a challenge for places like Masterson’s, which relies on takeaways nearby to keep beer drinkers fed.
“We don’t have a kitchen but we allow people to bring food in,” he says. “All I had to say is that you have to buy food from one of those places to drink but that wasn’t allowed.”
Peter says while the business owners he talks to understand the need for the government to act cautiously while reopening, MSBA members want to make sure smaller venues are allowed to act nimbly.
“Every small bar I’ve spoken to knows why we’re doing these things,” he says. “We just want some clarity and someone to listen to us. We’re not idiots here, we’re able to run small businesses that don’t go broke, and know what we’re doing.”
So, while the announcements of the past two days offer some hope of brighter days ahead – which Victorian beer lover doesn't look forward to the prospect of a spot of alfresco socialising with their mates right now? – plenty of questions remain about the future of hospitality in what the Premier today called "the cultural and dining capital of our nation".
“It’s nice that they’re going to be giving more money to do certain things," Peter says, "but, in the grand scheme of things, unless you already have the infrastructure set up, throwing money at the issue isn’t going to help.”
The Melbourne Small Bars Association can be found online here. The media release that followed today's announcement by the Premier is here.