Wallan resident Marguerite Hickey owns and operates a nail business in Diamond Creek, which she was forced to close without financial support during greater Melbourne's two-week lockdown. Image via @getnailedbymargs on Instagram.

By Aleksandra Bliszczyk

Small businesses, sole traders and community groups across the Mitchell Shire and surrounding regions are still struggling without financial support as restrictions ease statewide.

People who have lost their incomes were eligible for either $325 or $500 per week, depending on how many hours they normally worked, after the first week of lockdown under the Federal Government’s ‘temporary COVID-19 disaster’ scheme.

But the scheme only applied to greater Melbourne while it was declared a Commonwealth hotspot, so regional residents missed out. The payments have now ended since the Federal Government lifted its hotspot classification on Thursday.

The State Government is also offering grants of between $2500 and $5000 but only businesses registered for GST and therefore earning more than $75,000 per annum qualify.

“Only two weeks means I’ve lost around $3500,” Wallan resident and mother Marguerite Hickey said.

Ms Hickey owns and operates a nail business in Diamond Creek, and lost her income during greater Melbourne’s two-week lockdown.

Unregistered for GST and ineligible for a state grant, and unsupported by jobkeeper as she was last year, she said this lockdown has been the most challenging.

“If they want to lock us down, we need to have some sort of support system in place,” she said.

“Where’s the incentive to stop work? There was no, ‘you’re not going to have your job anymore, but here’s something to soften the blow’.”

Wallan personal trainer Thomas O’Dwyer-Richards also said jobkeeper was a ‘saviour’, but as a regional sole trader he wasn’t eligible for either federal or state government support this time.

He said that if the latest lockdown had been longer, his business may have been in jeopardy.

“You have to bounce back from that, there’s been two snap lockdowns this year and there will probably be another one, [and] we only just started gaining momentum from the last one, so it’s another kick,” he said.

Owner of Bizy Bodies gym in Wallan, Amanda Falahey, did receive a State Government grant during the latest lockdown, but criticised the one-size-fits-all approach.

“They are necessary, but given that they’re not scaled to the business, for a business of our size, the amount that we’ve received doesn’t even come close to covering the costs that we have, and also the fact that we can’t get new memberships [and] we can’t grow,” she said.

Lockdowns have also devastated the performing arts industry, with shows cancelled as density and capacity limits reduce ticket sales to the point of unviability.

For volunteer-based groups like Seymour Performers Workshop, a lockdown means no revenue.

“We are a community group so the events that we put on, they’re our money spinners, they’re what we get our revenue from,” said president Brett Harvey.

“If we don’t have the audience capacities, then we don’t have the revenue coming back to make the group sustainable, so it is going to hurt a lot of groups.”

Mr Harvey said although their members don’t perform professionally, the group still had utilities and other costs to cover.

“For us to put on a major musical, it’ll cost us upwards of $15,000 and we need to be able to balance the books. We need to be able to make that money back, so that’s the big question mark,” he said.

Politicians have slammed both state and federal governments for the lack of financial support for small businesses during Victoria’s circuit-breaker lockdown.

Government criticism

Member for Euroa Steph Ryan criticised the State Government’s tough grant criteria.

“Anyone operating a business with a turnover of less than $75,000 a year isn’t getting a brass razoo from the state Labor government,” she said.

“Most of these people are small traders who are desperately trying to stay afloat through the government’s lockdowns and restrictions.”

Member for McEwen Rob Mitchell also spoke in Parliament last month against the lack of federal support for Victoria.

“Without jobkeeper and other financial support, businesses and workers are being strangled by a lack of competence and compassion,” he said.

“While a three-day lockdown is hard, it’s nothing like a week or two-week lockdown. Not everyone can just go a week without pay.”

Despite the financial losses, an indestructible sense of optimism remains among operators.

Ms Falahey said she would always find a way to keep her business, which started in early 2020, open in the future.

“It’s very frustrating, but I can’t let that affect my mental health. I have absolutely no control over that decision,” she said.

Ms Hickey said there had been positives to come out of lockdown too.

“I feel like people didn’t really care too much about small business before this pandemic, [but] my business was going so well [over summer] because people wanted to support local. That was the coolest thing,” she said.

“That’s been a massive positive out of this that people are actually noticing small business more, which is really quite refreshing.”