It took just one week for COVID-19 to close our business. One confusing, heart-wrenching, indiscriminate and devastating week.
In the 2nd week of March we were busy doing – hosting a wedding, finishing performance appraisals across the business and planning and preparing for our weekend appearances at our industry’s largest event: Meatstock.
On Wednesday, 11 March, our concern was for our son and whether he’d overcome his fear of competing at district swimming and attend. He did (and came in 4th in his race!). And so did hundreds of other school kids.
I also sent two people home this day. Chef wasn’t happy. They were needed for the big weekend prep. But both had been complaining of feeling ill or coming out of a flu and I was starting to get nervous. This evening I posted a revised cleaning and contact practice for staff that required increased hand washing and sanitising and encouraging elbow bumping as appropriate greeting. It seems strange now to think of this, as elbow distance is way too close.
On Friday, 13 March, our view began to change. As the day went on we heard news of the Grand Prix being cancelled and as Martin and crew were driving to the showgrounds, we got the call that the weekend event would not go on. Our attention turned toward licking wounds – managing stock and minimising losses for the event. That evening I met with our Floor Manager and asked her to cut shifts for the following week.
We went home that day deflated and confused. What was happening?
We spent the weekend consumed by news, considering the implications of what was coming and what it would mean for our business. All of a sudden there seemed an urgency and a reality to COVID on our shores and we needed to be prepared. I fell into what would be the norm of the coming days – little and broken sleep, voracious reading, planning and thinking and thinking and planning – how would I navigate us through whatever was coming?
On Sunday, 15 March, we were back in the building with a clear message – cut rosters significantly and don’t order anything. Whatever was coming, we knew we didn’t have much time to figure it out.
On Monday, 16 March, I cancelled interviews for a role and provided notice to one of our staff. This was the first of many difficult conversations like this. I reviewed the rosters again and made more cuts and waited to share these with the team until we had more information. It would be devastating for some of our casuals to see they had lost all of their hours.
On Tuesday 17 March, I asked our leadership team to come into work on their day off. In the morning I organised to meet one key member at my house. I discussed what I felt was coming and that I needed her to reduce her hours in half and immediately. We discussed the importance of modelling this from the top as we implemented it everywhere. As hard as these conversations were, our amazing staff stepped into whatever was needed. Martin and I agreed to spend every possible minute working in the business to save money and be present for whatever was happening. The day was spent in triage – how would we do the emergency work that needed doing. We needed to embed and promote our alternative sales – take away and delivery, while urgently reducing costs. The people went into action.
Over these days I got the distinct feeling from some that they thought I was overreacting and that the decisions we were making were far too drastic and preemptive. It was difficult to balance striking urgency, without fear. Purpose without panic. In the quiet moments, I cried. And in the not so quiet moments. We all did.
On this day we sent out rosters. With a note to staff about cuts to those and our attempts to ration time. In a remarkably unremarkable moment, we said goodbye to staff who had worked with us for years. They simply didn’t have a shift. And the next week didn’t come.
On Wednesday 18 March we were open for business again. With shortened hours and a simplified menu. And as the day progressed and people came, the look of dread drained from people’s eyes and there was a sense that all would be well. But it wasn’t easy. Our staff were used to being resourced and process driven. With fewer staff, we could get less done and not as well. I had to tell them it was OK. I had to tell everyone, everywhere, that their best was good enough. And to forgive themselves the feeling of disappointment for not being our best version. As I write this now I’m struck by how easily we extend this kind of support to others but don’t absorb it for ourselves.
On Thursday 19 March we continued. Some of our staff began working from home, where possible and communications to guests and staff continued. We shared our movements with guests, what we were doing to protect them and encouraging them to visit us. We shared revised cleaning and hygiene processes and expectations of implementation. We shared what little we knew of what was happening and what it meant for jobs and hours and ongoing employment. We all watched the news for relief packages and social distancing measures.
On Friday 20 March, I called Fair Work for the 2nd time this week – hoping that they could communicate any updates with managing staff movements during this time. Unfortunately, they couldn’t. The Act, that they were so versed in reciting, did not include responses to pandemics. We were stuck, without any clarity on how to deal with the immediate needs of staffing or redundancies, amendments to hours and responsibilities. We were stuck with what to do and how and what would ensure we were legal and responsible. Ultimately, we had to make the decisions that we thought were right. Without the playbook and in the hopes that the playbook would catch up eventually. We’re still waiting.
Across this day we watched bookings – would people come on the weekend? At this point some of the private schools had closed and the move toward self isolation was in full swing. Public opinion and best practice meant gathering in public spaces was increasingly frowned upon. But without the weekend’s income, paying wages from our previous week would be difficult – such is the margins of hospitality and realities of most small businesses.
On Saturday 21 March, we were there. Fewer of us, doing more. The light extinguished from our eyes and a sense of dread for what was happening and what it meant. The day was hard and strange and when news of Kenny Rogers’ death came through that evening, we played his songs on repeat and basked in our shared despair – air hugging from across the room, tears in eyes and defeat in our step. I found myself struck at moments by the room. The space I’d come to love and the people who inhabited it. I attempted to burn the images into my brain, sensing that they were fleeting and not knowing when or if I’d see them again. I left at 9 and sat in the car and cried for an hour. Unable to leave the parking lot.
On Sunday 22 March, I delayed going in. After nights of little sleep and long days navigating, I needed to be away for just a moment. Martin went off to do the pit at dawn and at 2pm the kids and I joined him. I was there to take pictures, I told him. To get videos of people dining in our restaurant and to see it again. It was hard not to feel defeated. I didn’t understand what was happening or what it meant, all I knew was that it was ending and it mattered everything to me.
On entering I went into the kitchen where the Chef announced – ‘did you hear?! Victorian restaurants are required to close to diners. As of tomorrow at midday.’ The news I was expecting. I wandered out and got behind the bar to help out and close tabs. As one woman was paying and we were exchanging niceties about her meal, she leaned in and said to me, “We’ll be back. Soon. When this is all over. I promise.” I looked sideways at my colleague who looked like me and we embraced. Without thinking. We hugged and cried. And then sanitised. And then began the work of planning a close that was for not just the weekend but a while.
On 23 March, Monday morning, at just the time that we were required to close according to our Stage 2 restrictions, we made the decision to close entirely. We realise that we are in a strange and unsettling era that brings no assurances and that our best move was to quickly, efficiently and kindly put our beloved Red Gum to sleep so that she may wake again rested.
The news was delivered to staff over the coming days with as little information as we had for what that meant for them and how we could support them. We continue to watch the news and read everything that crosses our path for how to navigate through this. We know that the implications to our business closure has far reaching impacts to not only our staff but all of the local and family-run businesses who supply and service us. They are the next wave of this journey. The week was impossibly hard in so many ways and the days that followed and the deconstruction of all of our things continue to break our hearts.
There’s a lot that I don’t understand about what’s happened over the past couple of weeks and there’s a grief and sadness that came on suddenly and intensely but I’m able to look at it a bit now and begin to make shape of it. These kinds of things take time and reflection to move through so I know the coming days and months will bring a more clear perspective.
With the decision to close behind us, we’ve been able to focus on what is needed for our families and our selves. What this next bit looks like without jobs or purposes through work and things that define us. We are thankful that we have our health and realise the privilege of worrying about rent or work or business in the midst of so much personal devastation. And we know we’re not alone and that our story is shared by many.
All empty and packed away
We look forward to the time when we can join our work family again and revive our dear Red Gum BBQ. In the meantime, we’re going to eat ourselves silly, isolate, hope and dream. And we thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for all of the lovely messages, kind words and glances, offers of support and generosity you’ve extended over this period. It meant everything and as always – we are humbled by your friendship. We wish you and yours wonderful health and wellbeing and we look forward to seeing you again on the flipside. ❤️