Avoca Beach Picture Theatre has managed to navigate its way through COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions, but with JobKeeper set to cease at the end of March, theatre owners Beth and Norman Hunter are worried about maintaining staffing levels into the future.
The Hunters have lent their support to a week of action organised by Independent Cinemas Australia (ICA) urging the Federal Government to extend the scheme beyond March.
“JobKeeper has been really significant in helping us pay staff during the pandemic,” Norman Hunter said.
“When it ends, that will have a deep and fundamental impact on our business in the short term.
“But we are not inclined to give up and will do everything we can to ensure the continuation of the business.
“Cinemas were among the first venues to be closed (during the period of social resrictions) and one of the last to be reopened.
“This sent an inappropriate message that cinemas were dangerous but not one person has contracted COVID-19 at a cinema.
“Our staff are fundamental to the operation of the business and we have not had to let one person go through the pandemic, but when JobKeeper ends we will have to assess staff numbers and nothing is off the table.”
Hunter said industry-wide cinemas were down about 70 per cent in patronage.
“We are not that bad, but not far off it,” he said.
With patronage of 75 per cent now allowed, and masks no longer required to be worn by patrons or staff, business was picking up, he said.
“Our tiny cinema rates among the top five in the country,” she said.
“We consider our staff family and will do everything we can to keep all of them.”
But the end of JobKeeper could make that difficult for the Hunters, for whom Avoca Beach Picture is more than a business.
“My father built the cinema 70 years ago and it has been a family business all my life,” Norman Hunter said.
“There has been a tremendous amount of community support.
Senator Debar O’Neill threw her support behind the ICA week of action demanding an extension of JobKeeper, not just for the cinema industry, but for all businesses.
“Australian businesses have really tried to do the right thing by employees throughout COVID,” she said.
“For many, such as Avoca Beach Picture theatre with its staff of 30, JobKeeper has been the saviour.
“But on March 30 many businesses will face a cliff and we can’t afford for them to fall over.
“Much comment from the Federal Government bamboozles and distracts but the reality on the ground is that small businesses need ongoing support to continue to operate.
“When JobbKeeper ends, our economy will shrink and there will be more people on Centrelink cues.”
O’Neill urged Member for Robertson, Lucy Wicks, to “stand up to Prime Minister Scott Morrison” and push for an extension of JobKeeper, but said in the meantime the best thing residents could do is support small businesses locally.
“I have been here to Avoca Beach Picture Theatre twice during COVID,” she said.
“It is a hub of joy and storytelling and people are safe here.”