The ‘tricky’ question of mandating vaccines in small business

By Indira Laisram
Representatinal image. Photo by Alex Haney on Unsplash

At his restaurant in the CBD, *Shyam has been sitting since 10 am and by 2 pm as the clock ticks away, he has done only three takeaways. His Indian restaurant in the heart of the city, which was once thriving, has slowed down so much that Shyam prefers not to talk about the havoc the pandemic has wreaked on his business. Instead, he wants to focus on the positive and a future where customers are filling up the place again with chatter and happiness.

Elsewhere in the suburbs, Atul Khore, chef and restaurateur who runs Masala Craft in Thornbury, is busy with takeaways orders and admits to having both good and bad days. His prayers right now are for every Victorian to be vaccinated so that restrictions ease, life goes back to some semblance of normality and his restaurant opens the door to his much-loved patrons, who are also missing dining at this restaurant.

Another restaurant owner Rajesh Wahi of Ginger Club restaurant in the northern suburb of Melton, is keeping the same optimism as business staggers and COVID-19 refuses to go away.

Yet another business owner Anil Karpurapu, who owns the Dosa Hut chain of restaurants, is also ruing the fact that it’s hard times now. “We have to maintain the staff but there is no reduction in rents or other stuff, even the government incentive of $10K is nothing in terms of the expenses.”

Anil Karpurapu

In what may be the step towards going forward, New South Wales has announced that as a condition for reopening, it will require businesses to refuse entry to unvaccinated customers, a path Victoria is most likely to follow. Public health orders have paved the way for mandates in workplaces such as quarantine and construction, and the attention now seems to be shifting towards these small businesses.

While in principle, making vaccines compulsory for patrons sound good, opinion is divided among these small business owners who are reeling under losses just like other businesses due to the pandemic. The question therefore: do they have the luxury to offend customers by turning them away if they are not vaccinated?

Shyam says, “I think most small businesses especially after the last 18 months are not in a position to lose business anymore. Yes, vaccines are very important as they are the gateway forward but if you throw the burden on business owners with their staff or their customers, I think businesses lose their essence. I mean why are we policing, what makes us more superior to our staff or our customers. I believe it’s not fair to mandate and put pressure on businesses to enforce these rules because it should be free choice.”

He also argues that if he had a customer who is not vaccinated and is refused entry, not only has he lost his business but also his reputation “because I stood for something that I don’t believe strongly about at a personal level. Also, when you have 100 customers, you might have 30 or 40 that are anti-vaxxers and you don’t want to hurt their feelings and lose business because we don’t have that luxury anymore of offending anyone.”

Atul Khore

Wahi wonders how the new rule, if enforced, will pan out. His staff has already experienced struggling with ensuring people wear masks as some people refused to wear them inside the restaurant. “It will be a big hassle turning away customers, these sorts of things are hard. It will be more work for us.”

He cites the example of restaurants in the UK with aggressive customers wanting to come in. “Because we have been in the longest lockdown, we are also expecting that as soon as we open up.”

Khore, a firm believer in the ‘no jabs, no entry’ rule, says, “Vaccination should be the criteria moving forward and that applies to all entertainment venues as well where people who go to enjoy their food outdoors etc., should have that passport to get in. Every individual in the community has to play his part as businesses cannot keep an eye on every customer.”

On the other hand, Karpurapu believes there is no reason to fear. “If there is a strict law that only vaccinated people will be allowed into venues, then business owners have the support of the police or security who can take legal action against those who defy orders or turn aggressive,” says Karpurapu, who has been doing his bit to encourage vaccination by offering 10 per cent discounts to the customer who is vaccinated.

Rajesh Wahi

This month, Qantas became the second major Australian company to mandate vaccines for its workers. Under the commitment, all frontline staff must be fully vaccinated by November 15, and the rest of its workforce by March 31, 2022.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on August 6 stated that, “While Australia’s policy remains that vaccines should be voluntary and free, businesses have a legal obligation to keep their workplaces safe and to eliminate or minimise so far as ‘reasonably practicable’ the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“Decisions to require COVID-19 vaccinations for employees will be a matter for individual business, taking into account their particular circumstances and their obligations under safety, anti-discrimination and privacy laws,” Morrison said.

Vaccinations are the way forward no doubt. It is a tricky situation, opine these small business owners, but one that makes business sense.

(*Name changed)

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