Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday announced metropolitan Melbourne’s timeline for achieving COVID Normal, a milestone at which businesses may open, provided they have a COVIDSafe Plan. For permitted retailers that are already open with a COVIDSafe Plan[1], nothing has changed. But for all other retailers, the timeline further delays a return to normal operations, with no relaxation of restrictions until 26 October 2020 at the earliest.

The current restrictions

The Stage 4 restrictions currently in place for the retail sector in metropolitan Melbourne came into effect on 8 August 2020. Under the restrictions, ‘permitted retailers’ such as supermarkets, liquor stores, newsagents and pharmacies can open if they have a COVIDSafe Plan. Retailers that do not qualify as ‘permitted retailers’ (‘other retailers’) have had to limit sales to ‘click and collect’ within 5km of the shopper’s home, or delivery. Similarly, hospitality venues can only serve food by takeaway or delivery. Hair and beauty services remain closed.

The new timeline

According to the Premier’s timeline, the relaxation of retail restrictions will turn on case numbers. Only when there is an average of less than five new daily cases state-wide (measured over a 14-day period) will other retailers be able to serve customers face-to-face, but the retailers will be subject to limits on visitor numbers and cleaning requirements. At this stage, food outlets will be able to serve customers sitting outside, subject to caps on density and group sizes.

The milestone of COVID Normal – where a retailer may open with a COVIDSafe Plan – will be reached only when there have been no new cases in the state for 28 days, there are no active cases in the state, and no outbreaks of concern in other states or territories.

Reaction from the sector

At this stage, examples of unqualified support for the new timeline in the retail sector are elusive. The Australian Retailers Association has issued a media release in which CEO, Paul Zahra, has welcomed the new timeline but expressed concerns about the ‘devastating’ impact on some retailers.

The Australian Financial Review reports ‘industry heavyweights’ in Melbourne’s restaurant scene also fearing devastation, and that newspaper’s editorial today criticizes an apparent lack of analysis of the business and health costs in the formulation of the new timeline.

Regardless of differing perspectives, to date the Australian retail sector has fairly safely navigated the health risks of the epidemic. With the sector second only to healthcare in the number of people it employs, not only the shopping public but the entire nation hopes the sector can navigate the business risks with similar success.