Covid restrictions hammer business

Sharley Haddon fears she may lose her beloved horses and riding business after nearly 40 years.

Mahurangi businesses are putting on a brave face but are realistic about even tougher times ahead, given the restrictions, lockdowns and associated economic fallout due to Covid-19.

Pakiri Beach Horse Rides owner Sharley Haddon is among the worst affected, fearing that she may have to close up shop and sell her beloved horses.

International visitors keep the business running during the winter months but with foreign tourism effectively banned, Mrs Haddon is reliant on the domestic market to keep going.

That’s proving an unreliable prop as people worry about hanging on to their jobs and conserving their limited resources.

“I’m a discretionary activity. People don’t need to ride horses. It’s a leisure pursuit and the first things that topple are leisure pursuits,” she says.   

With no money coming in and 60 horses still to feed, Mrs Haddon has had to lay off four of her six staff and has managed to keep the remaining two only because of the Government wage subsidy.

Mrs Haddon has run her business for almost 40 years but is more bothered about the prospects for her horses than she is for herself – concerned that they will end up separated.   

“They all have their own little groups of friends. It’s not easy to break them up – not for somebody who is emotionally fond of horses,” she says.

Other businesses have yet to feel the full effects of Covid-19, but fear the blow will inevitably fall soon.

Lynda Ashby, owner of strawberry grower Gala Berry, of Omaha, says harvesting begins in just a few weeks and the business is heavily reliant on recruiting overseas workers – typically from the Pacific Islands – to pick the crop.

“There are some seasonal workers stranded in the country who have not been able to return home who we can employ, but it will quickly come to the point where there are not enough of them,” she says.

The crunch time will be October, when the bulk of the harvest will come in and when Gala Berry typically employs around 100 seasonal workers from overseas.

Ms Ashby says she will work closely with the Ministry of Social Development to try to make up the shortfall.

She adds that the biggest challenge is the uncertainty – not knowing when lockdowns are going to occur, at what level and what plans need to be in place to cope.  

“I guess there’s no point in stressing because there is not a lot you can do,” she says.

Uncertainty is also playing at the back of minds of other business owners and managers. General manager at MS Engineering Graham Buchs says he actually prefers operating under Level 3 in some ways. While it has meant temporarily closing the retail side of the business, it has allowed the company to concentrate on its core engineering works.

“Construction and building can continue under Level 3 so we are still servicing that sector,” he says.

His biggest setback so far is having an employee living outside the Auckland region who has been unable to come in for work.

But Mr Buchs says challenges will mount as lockdowns impact the businesses MS Engineering trades with, inevitably ultimately hurting MS Engineering as well.

He is especially concerned about any reversion back to Level 4, which would completely shut down the company’s workshop, leaving 60 staff without work and MS Engineering still having to pay major overheads.

Despite the headaches, businesses so far appear remarkably tolerant of the Government’s lockdown approach.

General manager at Brick Bay Wines and Sculpture Trail Anna Didsbury says from a business perspective it is been devastating to go into lockdown a second time.

“However, we can see the bigger picture and are fully supportive of these public health-focused restrictions,” she says.   

Nevertheless, businesses are often urging for a more nuanced approach to lockdown from Government.

Matakana Farmers Market manager Fiona McGeough says stallholders are unable to trade under Level 3, but thinks this restriction should be relaxed.  

“We offer a large open-air environment for our locals to shop. We should be able to service the public, not just the supermarkets,” she says.

Matakana Cinemas owner Dan Paine adds that the Government needs to look at specific assistance for certain industries, rather than a cookie-cutter approach.

For example, he says his industry has to cope with the fact that the key players – the United States film studios – are in disarray and are currently unwilling to release big budget films into key markets, including New Zealand.

“We cannot just reopen after lockdown and get straight back to supplying a service that was the equivalent of pre-Covid, in fact far from it,” he says.

“It is currently manageable for us, given the ongoing wage subsidy assistance and partial rent-breaks, but it wouldn’t be sustainable otherwise,” he says.

Meanwhile, Sharley Haddon thinks the Government should more closely restrict lockdowns to the areas where outbreaks of community transmission occur.

“For me, being in lockdown here in Pakiri is crazy. I’m miles away from the city,” she says.

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