Stressed Hunter business owners are craving certainty from the NSW government after weeks of rolling lockdowns.
"Everyone's thinking, realistically, give up on the term three school holidays. It's let's hope we get out of it by Christmas," the chief executive of Newcastle non-profit organisation The Business Centre, Steve Wait, said.
"It's a bonus if we get out before. Everyone's given up on the 10th of September well and truly. It's just hang on and hope we all get Christmas."
The government will announce on Thursday whether the Hunter will come out of lockdown on Saturday, but Deputy Premier John Barilaro has all but ruled that out in media briefings this week.
The government is working on a "road map" for how the state will reopen when it hits 70 and 80 per cent vaccination targets in October and November and is poised to trial vaccine passport technology linked to QR codes.
Greater Sydney's stay-at-home fate has been sealed for weeks, but the Hunter and the rest of regional NSW has endured a series of one-week and, most recently, two-week lockdowns.
"Living week by week, waiting for the Premier to come out and say another week, that's very hard when you're running a business," Mayfield gym owner Sergio Rossi said.
"If you know we're not getting out until 70 or 80 per cent, come out and say it. Don't beat around the bush. We then know where we all stand and we can all plan."
Small and mid-sized business owners who shared their stories with the Newcastle Herald said they were buckling financially, and often psychology, under the strain as what had hoped would be a short lockdown on August 5 had morphed into a months-long closure.
"This whole process has been very different to the first time. I'm a bit deflated about the whole thing," hotel owner Mick Starkey said.
"There's so many things that are completely out of our control."
Many hospitality, fitness, training and tourism operators face post-lockdown uncertainty over mask, distancing and vaccine rules and the threat of more lockdowns.
"We're in the business of planning and putting shows on and restaurants. Everything's gone. We're just sitting there waiting and maybe open up," Mr Starkey said.
"To me, there's been not a lot of consideration for the effects this is having on people outside of getting COVID.
"We're losing thousands and thousands of dollars a week. When we get to open, if we get to open up in November, we'll probably be 20 years behind where we started in terms of finance."
Cooks Hill cafe owner Ben Richardson said he had started talking to key staff about their attitude to vaccinations.
"It's not our role to dictate to staff what they do," he said.
"We don't want them to be without money, but that could be taken out of my hands. If the government says they can't work, there's nothing I can do about it."
Mr Rossi said masks could ruin his gym business, which suffered a 70 per cent drop in revenue when the state introduced them in June.
"Coming into summer, people will struggle. You might have all the air-conditioning the world, but it's not going to help," he said.
He said the government should remove the mask rules if everyone in his gym had to be double vaccinated.
Mr Rossi's wife, Lisa, who also runs the gym, said the state should make it clear that small business owners were not responsible for customer vaccination rules.
"The way social media is these days, if you deny entry to a person who's an active social media person, your reputation is gone," she said.
"When you rely on every person coming through the doors, it's going to be difficult to say, 'You're not vaccinated; you can't come in.'"
The Rossis started the gym four years ago and are paying off loans on expensive equipment.
The couple receive COVID disaster payments as employees of the company. The business received a one-off grant in July and gets fortnightly JobSaver payments up to 40 per cent of its payroll.
The government support is keeping the family and business just above water.
Genesis Health and Fitness owner John Pirlo, who has 174 staff and "virtually zero" revenue, said uncertainty about reopening dates was debilitating.
"If it's three months or four months, it totally changes the game of what you've got to do," he said.
"Staff engagement is the hardest thing. I've already had a couple of resignations from people because they're really struggling.
"We're getting lots and lots of questions about mandatory vaccinations and whether we're not going to allow people into the club.
"Getting people to wear masks while training was one thing, but forced vaccinations is another and how that emotionally affects people.
"We're burning hundreds of thousands of dollars. You've got these debts racking up and trying to support your team members at the same time."
Workers who have lost hours have been receiving $450 and $750 weekly disaster relief payments, but business owners fear losing trained and reliable staff amid a general shortage of workers in some sectors.
"We've been having Zoom meetings and master classes just to keep them engaged, because it's such a bloody horrible situation for everyone to be in," Mr Starkey said.
"These guys are earning half the money they were before, and they've still got mortgages to pay."
He said having a vaccinated workforce when his hotels, Customs House and the Stag and Hunter, reopened was another challenge.
"That'll be the biggest headache, because obviously a lot of our guys were of an age that weren't eligible.
"I won't be double vaccinated until mid-November; that's how long it took me to get in."
An Australian Hotels Association survey of 6500 pub staff found 55.7 per cent would be fully vaccinated by the end of October, 6.6 per cent said they would not get vaccinated and 9.5 per cent were undecided.
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Grants have stopped many businesses going broke in the short-term, but Mr Wait said some were fatally wounded.
"We've got ones that are just trying to struggle away. It's so hard to tell some people because it's their business," he said.
"There has been a bit of propping up with JobKeeper and some of the grants, but really none of these grants are going to save a business that can't be saved. You might get a 12-month cycle out of it.
"There's still some good stories, but they're not as many as the bad ones."
Mr Wait said lease costs were crippling burdens for many business owners.
"Leases are killing people. Say, a business with 20 employees with a big warehouse and they're paying quite a large amount for a lease commercially and they're exposed on a 10-year lease.
"They could be $1 million, $1.4 million in the hole because there's no way they're going to get back to trading, but they've still got this lease hanging over their head.
"They fold the business, but they've still the obligation to pay this lease."
He said insurance premiums were rising sharply after several years of bushfires, floods and the pandemic.
Some Hunter traders have pivoted to find alternative revenue streams during lockdown, and Lake Macquarie City Council has launched a "pay if forward" scheme urging customers to pay now for goods and services they can redeem after lockdown.
Mr Richardson said his pivot back to selling takeaway lunch boxes had kept revenue ticking over and helped keep staff engaged, but he guessed that many business owners were "getting to that point of burnout".
"It's not physically hard, but you're thinking about it all the time.
"I think this time around it's harder with the limit on travel and keeping everyone in LGAs.
"I was always thinking, 'It'll be over in two or three weeks,' and now I'm like, 'This could drag on for another four or six weeks, or even more.' I guess we've got to start planning around that."
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