Restaurants empty as diners, staff show omicron caution

Australians cut their spending on dining out by 24 per cent last week compared with the week ending December 24 amid caution about booming COVID-19 case numbers, data from ANZ has revealed.

This drop outstripped the 18-20 per cent reduction usually recorded after the Christmas trading peak, with South Australia, Western Australia and NSW recording particularly sharp drops.

The reduction in dining out came as hospitality businesses across the eastern states close their doors, as venues struggle to find enough staff who are not isolating or infected with COVID-19 to open.

Almost all restaurants and cafes in the Great Ocean Road town of Lorne were shut on Wednesday, while venues in both Melbourne and Sydney’s northern suburbs were extending their Christmas closure periods in light of staff shortages.

ANZ senior economist Adelaide Timbrell pinned the steeper decline in New Year’s dining compared with previous years on the omicron virus wave.

“[It] is likely due to a mix of hospitality closures due to omicron outbreaks, lack of access to food delivery and cautious behaviour by prospective customers about spending time in public,” she said.

She added that Apple mobility data showed about half the gains in movement made since Australia’s delta outbreaks have been reversed because of omicron caution.

For the owner of popular Melbourne CBD wine bar Embla, Christian McCabe, closures because of staffing shortages seemed “inevitable” in the months after he reopens next week.

“We are looking now at what happens when we inevitably get shut down not from a lockdown, but when we have no customers or no staff,” he said.

“It’s a bit of a new problem, because on one hand there’s a personnel shortage which was last year’s problem and will continue, but now with the personnel you’ve got, everyone is inevitably going to get COVID at some point in the next few months and not be able to come down.”

The restaurateur said the unknown nature of when people would fall sick or have to isolate ruled out hiring short-term staff, or cutting down service offerings.

“We don’t know when it’s going to strike or how many people it will affect, then on top of that, there may be a point when we have peak infection levels and customers just don’t want to go out.”

His short-term plan is to only book out half of Embla at a time, meaning he can scale walk-in capacity up or down depending on staff availability.

“We will be making it up as we go along though, there’s no doubt we’re going to have to close for a few periods of time until we work through until the next phase starts.”

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