Newcastle restaurant Rustica has been forced to shut its doors on Saturday due to staff being struck down by COVID-19 or influenza.
More than 200 diners with reservations for that day are currently being contacted by the restaurant.
For the city's hospitality industry this is not a new scenario, nor is it isolated. Closing a restaurant or cafe for a day or two - or cancelling a lunch or dinner service at late notice - due to staff shortages has become standard practice.
There are several factors at play. One is health related: staff members test positive to COVID-19 or influenza (or any number of viruses doing the rounds) and are unable to work.
Another factor is staff retention. Employers have reported over and over that a high volume of staff have not returned to the industry in the wake of JobKeeper and JobSeeker, or are unable to work due to their vaccination status.
Then there is the recruitment shortfall. Employers continue to experience difficulties attracting new staff and fewer cooking apprentices are enrolling at TAFE, too.
Jane Maroulis, who owns and runs Paterson Tavern as well as Boydell's Wines, Cellar Door & Restaurant in Morpeth with her husband Daniel, has her finger firmly on the pulse. She says staff shortages present an ongoing problem for employers, however "the threat of burnout of staff and the onset of winter flu and colds is making it worse at the moment".
"Hospitality is being greatly affected by staff shortages, and the reasons are two-fold: staff not returning to the industry after the COVID lockdowns; and when what staff we do have are out due to illness, we have no choice but to close.
"We have reduced the trading days of our Morpeth restaurant and cellar door due to staff shortages - this was a conscious decision, so we did not burn out the staff we do have.
"Although we have always been focused on looking after our staff, staff retention is now as crucial as customers through the door."
She has been capping the number of bookings at lunch and dinner service "to ensure we don't compromise on quality ... and are still able to provide a memorable experience and high level of service to our customers".
"Staff shortages combined with increased food costs and wages is really putting a lot of pressure on the local family-owned restaurants," Maroulis added.
"I'm not sure what the answer is to fix this, as it is not specific just to the hospitality industry. However if we continue to have the support of our local communities - if continue to eat out and support their local restaurants - it will help see less doors closing."
Reece Hignell, owner of Cakeboi in Hamilton, says recruitment has been more of a problem for him since COVID-19 reared its ugly head.
"Last year I advertised for a barista and attracted over 100 applicants (there was heaps of hype but still I feel the market was hot for recruitment) but recently I advertised and only attracted three applications," he said.
"I've had staff who previously resigned for study, return to work just to help keep the business afloat."
He has seen a difference between casual workers and his permanent baking team, who are "strong and steady because this is their career and passion".
"It's almost like people don't want to work casually anymore which makes it so difficult when someone get sick and you have zero options," he said.
Chef Michael Portley, owner of Humbug in Newcastle, says he has had to close his restaurant/wine bar "for half a week due to COVID already".
He opened the restaurant in February.
"It's definitely happening to other businesses too," he said.
"The support from government for when this happens is non-existent.
"Temping agencies (when I last checked) had all chefs booked out seven days for a month straight, so the prospect of finding last minute replacements is also pretty hopeless."
Lisa Margan, of Margan Wines & Restaurant at Broke, has been more fortunate than most.
"Personally we haven't had to close due to staff shortages - thankfully. And touch wood! And we have a full team, both kitchen and floor, and across all our hospitality operations," she said.
"But I know other businesses haven't been that lucky and staff shortages due to COVID - and also a lack of hospo 'internationals' on visas - has compounded the problem.
"The big positive change was when staff didn't have to isolate for seven days if they were a close contact . That was going to become impossible."
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