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BUSINESSES won’t start receiving JobKeeper payments for another couple of weeks, but the promise of Federal Government relief has allowed a Hamilton café to retain more than half its staff during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Tosca Browns closed its doors indefinitely due to safety concerns three weeks ago, but owner, Mal Rowe said the government’s JobKeeper program had allowed it to retain eight of its 14 staff members.

“When the State Government started to bring in its restrictions, stopping people from eating in, we originally moved to doing takeaway only,” he said.

“But as the situation developed and the level of anxiety about COVID-19 increased, I was concerned about the safety of my staff.

“Even with social distancing measures, they were still dealing with hundreds of customers each day, which was a significant risk.

“Ultimately we sat down and made the big decision to close indefinitely.

“We have a lot of loyal customers and we really felt for them, but we had to do the right thing by our staff, especially as a lot of them have young children.”

Mr Rowe said the café had been able to make that decision with the optimism it would qualify for JobKeeper and its staff would continue to be paid.

“Without that security, we would have been in a position where we had to weigh up the safety concerns with standing everyone down,” he said.

“We would have been operating in a totally different environment.”

Mr Rowe said the business had gone through the process of applying for the program this week and was confident it would be found eligible when the first payments are sent out next month.

“We’re still waiting, but we’re confident that we’ll be eligible,” he said.

“It’s meant we’ve retained our staff that were eligible and they have still been paid, which is a requirement under JobKeeper.

“It’s been tough, it’s a significant cost and we’ve had to talk to the bank about our options with overdraft facilities … but it has allowed me to keep my staff engaged.”

Under the JobKeeper program, businesses that have experienced at least a 30 per cent decrease in their turnover because of the pandemic can receive financial assistance of $1500 a fortnight for each eligible full-time, part-time and long-term casual staff member, to help cover the cost of wages.

Businesses are expected to continue paying staff throughout the pandemic, with the Federal Government reimbursing the cost of the program monthly.

Café supervisor, Mikaela Dodd said JobKeeper had given her much-needed stability in a time of uncertainty.

“It’s been a really stressful time, but it has given me piece of mind,” she said.

“I still have a mortgage and have to put food on the table while not working … it helps to keep getting paid while we’re closed.

“But just as important is the relief that I’ll still have a job to go back to when all this is over.

“It’s been mentally draining … and being at home thinking it could be another six months before I can go back to work is hard, but it would be harder without having that job there waiting.”

With hospitality likely one of the last industries to get back to normal operations as restrictions are lifted in coming months, Mr Rowe said the café was trying to find the positives.

“We closed with a great sense of optimism for the future,” he said.

“We will be able to do some maintenance projects that we haven’t been able to do in the past because we’re always open.

“We’ve also had time to think about if there’s anything different we can do when we reopen.”

Mr Rowe said he was hopeful he would be able to reopen the café again soon.

“I’d love to reopen again tomorrow if we could, but that’s not going to happen,” he said.

“I’m not sure when it’s going to happen, but it probably won’t be the way we normally do business … we may have to go back to takeaway only at the start.

“I think it would be nice to restart with a bang though … I have this feeling from talking to other business owners that the town should have some kind of celebratory restart, where we close off the roads and have a bit of a street fair with all the traders open when we’re allowed.”

Mr Rowe said while Tosca Browns had been doing it tough, many businesses were also in the same boat.

“I also work with the Rural Financial Counselling Service, which provides strategic support for small businesses, and I’ve been my own best client these past couple of months,” he said.

“It’s been a challenging time, but we’re getting through it.”

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