Emerging from a 11-week long COVID-19 lockdown, gay business in Melbourne and Sydney are looking to the community to help them survive.

The past week was the first full week of service for many establishments since Australia enforced social distancing restrictions – when clubs, performance venues, retailers shutdown and restaurants became take-away only. From June 1, the easing of restrictions has allowed restaurants to seat 20 patrons at a time and from June 21 onwards this will be increased to 50 patrons.

It has been one long nightmare for most LGBTQI entrepreneurs who have had to lay off staff they could not afford to keep, battle unsympathetic landlords and burn through their savings. With restrictions easing, the hope is that they would  be able to survive, if not reach pre-Covid levels.

Colin Paull, the affable manager of Belloccio Restaurant on Sydney’s Oxford Street told Star Observer that there was a real danger that the lockdown impact could push struggling gay-owned businesses over the edge.

“Shop with LGBTQI retailers because they are really suffering. Once they are gone they are gone forever, that is what I tell everyone,” said Paull. “We are more vulnerable than other businesses. And, I will tell you why! Our businesses source [their] customer base from the community – the bookshops, the clubs are community focussed.  If the community does not support us, it puts us on the backfoot.”

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 Paull is thankful to customers who supported the restaurant by ordering takeaway during lockdown. Since reopening its doors on June 1, Belloccio has had steady bookings hosting three table sittings at 5 pm, 7 pm and 9 pm daily.

“We’ve been very fortunate that our very strong customer base supported us ordering takeaway, pick-up and home delivery,” said Paull. The word on the street has however not been all positive. “I’ve been hearing that the landlords and agents like ours have been horrible. There has been less footfall traffic, many can’t afford to put staff on, all the money is getting absorbed up very quickly. The local council has allocated a small amount for local businesses – we needed 10 times what they allocated.”

Performance venues have bore the brunt of the lockdown. Soon after the restrictions came into effect, Richard Taki, who co-owns Vau D’Vile Drag Cabaret in Melbourne’s inner north  decided to take his business and performances online. They turned their stage into a recording studio and started livestreaming the weekend performances.

“We lost 99% of our income because we are a performance venue. We are not actually a restaurant, the food is secondary. Our main income comes from the drag performances so we need an audience,” said Taki who along with his husband opened Vau D’Vile Drag Cabaret on Johnston Street, Fitzroy in 2017. Taki as the fierce “big, black and beautiful blacktress” Bumpa Love also leads Melbourne’s popular drag troupe The Vixens, who perform every Friday and Saturday at Vau D’Vile.

“As a business owner it has been very stressful. Worrying  if we will be able to sustain ourselves, not just sustain but whether we will be able to continue; whether or not we might have to shut down, that’s a conversation that I’ve had a couple of times,” said Taki.

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 Vau D’Vile has had to bring down its staff strength from 11 to five, but it managed to keep two of the drag queens on Jobkeeper since they were employees. The immediate objective Taki has set for the business is to fill up the restaurant every weekend, get Vau D’Vile back on its feet and keep going.

“The team has put in a lot of effort and we have come back bigger and better,” promised Taki.

Across the street, Hares and Hyenas – Melbourne’s iconic book shop, is drawing up new plans as well. Like Vau D’Vile, it innovated early in the lockdown – offering a books by bike service to its customers and hopes to continue “weather and enthusiasm permitting.”

“The book shop is open with near normal hours. The cafe will be open from Tuesday (June 9) with the normal COVID-19 restrictions. We are still working through the details for venues and trying to find a way to have a hybrid of IRL (in  real life) and streamed audiences when the time is right,” revealed co-owner Rowland Thomson.

If the businesses are to survive and sustain, the community will have to step up in true Australian spirit, according to Paull. “When someone is down you put your head down and lift them. That is what we want the community to do.”

Paulls message is simple – do not stop supporting businesses on Oxford Street and other places across Australia. “You gotta support the small businesses – the little clothing shops, restaurants, cafes, the bars, the local supermarket. All the little businesses that make our community.  If it wasn’t for these businesses we wouldn’t have a community here. Buy Books! Even if you don’t read it, buy it for your coffee table. You are supporting little businesses that are institutions.”

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