As the Omicron variant reignites debate over restrictions and lockdowns, the still-recovering hospitality and retail sectors face uncertain futures.
The government is resisting calls for mask mandates and asserting that this year’s Christmas celebrations will be unaffected by surging COVID-19 case numbers.
But Restaurant and Catering Association CEO Wes Lambert said a wave of nervous consumers are cancelling bookings to avoid catching COVID-19 and having to isolate on Christmas Day.
The Omicron effect
Mr Lambert said hospitality businesses are reporting “dozens to hundreds” of cancelled bookings over the last weeks of December.
“Many people do not want to become close contacts, and are wary of … becoming a close contact and being forced to isolate over the Christmas holidays,” he said.
“We do expect that, due to consumer confidence issues around the Omicron variant and rising case numbers, the increase [of revenue] … could end up being flat or slightly negative in the last few weeks of December.”
Sean Fawsitt is the general manager of the Great Northern Hotel in Carlton in Melbourne.
Mr Fawsitt said although groups of people have cancelled bookings after being classified as close contacts of COVID cases, the trend has “not massively” affected the business so far.
But he expects it to become a bigger issue in the near future.
“Many things change daily – at the moment there is [a] really high degree of uncertainty,” he said.
Mr Fawsitt said the hospitality industry also faces the immediate problem of finding enough workers – a sentiment echoed by Mr Lambert.
Mr Lambert said the recent wave of lost bookings would have provided the extra revenue the industry needed to get through autumn and winter after what is expected to be an all-hands-on-deck summer.
Government focused on getting through Christmas
With the number of COVID-19 cases surging to more than 3000 in New South Wales on Tuesday, NSW opposition leader Chris Minns criticised Premier Dominic Perrottet’s refusal to reintroduce indoor mask mandates based on the advice of some health experts.
“The main thing here is that Christmas isn’t ruined and we don’t go back into lockdown,” Mr Minns told Sydney radio 2GB.
Mr Lambert said although state governments must adjust their health policies to their specific circumstances, it is important that Australia learns to live with COVID-19.
“We all need to learn to live with COVID in 2022, and begin to end all tracking, tracing, isolations and quarantines like we have with many other communicable diseases that we live with,” he said.
“The food service industry was the hardest-hit industry and will continue to be so during the pandemic, due to any and all restrictions that are put in place, or the consumer confidence issues related to both rising case numbers and hospitalisations.”
Meanwhile, the Australian Retailers Association is not too worried about the repercussions of the latest variant.
The group’s chief industry affairs officer, Fleur Brown, said retailers are “on alert, but not alarmed”.
She said the industry still expects to rake in more than $21 billion in post-Christmas sales.