‘Absolutely confusing’: businesses suffering in Sydney lockdown plead for certainty over what’s essential work | New South Wales

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Business owners and staff across Sydney say they remain totally confused by the lack of clarity surrounding who is and isn’t an essential worker during the current five-week lockdown.

Guardian Australia visited numerous shops across the city on Thursday and almost everyone said the same thing: “The advice is confusing.”

The New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has insisted the rules on essential workers were “very clear” but also admitted they were open to interpretation.

Smart Street in the heart of Fairfield was quiet on Thursday as masked shoppers hurriedly purchased supplies and left.

At Smart St Fish Market, owner James Violaris said his business had been hit hard by the restrictions.

“It’s been very bad,” he said as he gutted and cleaned a fish. “I used to have a lot more staff, they’re all mentally struggling. Even the customers, you can see it in their eyes, this is not life, this is not living, this is not how it should be.”

James Violaris says his business, Smart St Fish Market in Fairfield, has been hit hard by the Sydney lockdown. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Violaris said he was confused by the lack of clarity around who was and wasn’t an essential worker, but for him it was easy.

“We sell food, food is essential, so there you go,” he said. “[But] I’m seeing shoe shops open, is that essential? I don’t know, they have to get their money too. It’s just hard to stay open. Even as an essential worker, it’s hard to keep the business going. Right now, it’s a loss, every day is a loss. Look outside, I think we’re the only shop open on the street. Even the bakery is closed.”

Elsewhere what counted as an essential business was unclear. Restaurants were set up for takeaway while many retail shops remained open.

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On King Street in Newtown, pharmacies, hardware and convenience stores were open while the majority of retail shops were closed on Thursday.

But a significant number were open, including fashion and shoe stores, book shops, gifts shops and variety stores. Some had click and collect tables set up at their front entrances, but most allowed customers to walk in and browse.

In Westfield Burwood, most retail shops were closed, however larger department stores including David Jones, Kmart and Target, and other fashion chains remained open.

In Strathfield, it was noticeably quieter, but again there were a handful of retail shops open.

The NSW government has resisted calls to define what is an “essential worker”, urging businesses and individuals to instead use “common sense”.

“To try and define essential work is really very challenging,” the health minister, Brad Hazzard, said on Tuesday. “An employer and their employee would know whether the worker is really essential.”

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However, the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, drew a clearer distinction on Thursday when announcing his state would enter a snap five-day lockdown.

“Retail is shut, closed, [use] click and collect, contactless. If you’re on the list [of essential workers] go to work, if not, you can’t,” Andrews said of Victoria’s highly prescriptive approach.

The NSW government on Tuesday announced essential workers who lived in the Fairfield local council area needed to be tested every three days if working outside the area.

Businesses in Fairfield are grappling with the impact of the five-week lockdown
‘There are no people on the street’: Businesses in Fairfield are grappling with the impact of the five-week lockdown. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Tee, who owns a pawn shop in Fairfield, said the rules were very confusing.

“I don’t know how you could get tested two or three times a week, might as well just close the shop. Work three days and get tested three days? It’s not worth it,” he said.

“It’s ridiculous, we’re stuck here, we’re not allowed to leave and we’re stuck. The advice is confusing, sometimes we’re told to shut, sometimes we’re told to open. I don’t get it. I feel trapped.”

Regienald Panganiban from Enhanced Supplements, a fitness store in Fairfield, said the discussions around who was an essential worker were “absolutely confusing”.

“At the moment, essential is not defined very clearly, and I would probably define myself as healthcare, as I sell supplements and proteins,” he said.

“This lockdown is very confusing in terms of what is defined as essential, I’ve been tuning into the press conferences every day, and she can’t answer the questions directly, she’s always beating around the bush, there is no clear definition.”

Regienald Panganiban from Enhanced Supplements in Fairfield
Regienald Panganiban from Enhanced Supplements in Fairfield says the NSW government is ‘always beating around the bush’ about who is an essential worker. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Panganiban said he was in a “grey area” when it came to having to be tested every three days as he lives outside Fairfield.

“What about the people travelling in and out? There aren’t any specific rules around that. It’s a major inconvenience.”

Fairfield councillor Dai Le has argued locking Fairfield residents in unless they get tested every three days shows “the lack of lived experiences and cultural diversity at the very senior leadership level of our government”.

Fairfield, affectionately known as “Little Baghdad” for its growing Iraqi community, was largely deserted on Thursday as locals responded to calls by authorities to limit movement.

Rame Shmoeel runs a traditional Iraqi bakery called Brother’s Bakery in the heart of Fairfield.

Brothers Bakery in Fairfield
Rame Shmoeel, who runs Brothers Bakery in Fairfield, says he had to let his worker go and is thinking of closing. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

“It’s not like before, now there’s nothing. There are no people on the street,” he said.

He’s getting tested every three days and has had to reduce staffing.

“I’m upset, it’s hurting the business. It’s not fair we had to let our worker go. We’ll wait and see, we live day to day, I am thinking of closing the shop though. I make all this, and nobody buys it. What am I going to do? We’re just stuck.”

Emad Qellu from Fairfield Forum Market said he was refusing entry to people who didn’t check-in or wear a mask.

“Seventy per cent of people follow the rules, but some of them don’t follow, and I don’t allow them in. Doesn’t matter, if I close down, I don’t care, we have to stick to the rules,” he said. “The business is much slower, there’s nobody here now, we’ve been struggling, until we finish from this outbreak, we just have to keep going. We will survive.”

Alex owns a dry cleaning shop in the area and said it was important that authorities communicated the rules more clearly.

Alex from Alex’s Dry Cleaning in Fairfield
Alex, from Alex’s Dry Cleaning in Fairfield, says of the government, ‘we don’t know what they want us to do’. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

“It is very confusing, and it’s hard. It’s ridiculous to expect people to be able to get tested every three days. It matters how they also define an essential worker, to me, everyone is an essential worker. Everyone needs to work.

“If you don’t have the news running 24/7, how can you know what’s going on? It’s very hard to keep up. The messages coming from the TV is very confusing, we don’t know what they want us to do.”

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