There’s an irony to the empty seats at the Thai Rock restaurant in Wetherill Park, NSW.
“Our regulars keep saying: this has to now be one of the cleanest, safest places to eat in Australia,” owner Stephanie Boyd says. “They’ve returned – and they really defend us. They know we followed health guidelines and this wasn’t our fault.”
Since the restaurant reopened after being the site of Sydney’s biggest coronavirus cluster (103 cases) last July, it has been sterilised and professionally deep-cleaned to eliminate any trace of the virus – and it continues to be thoroughly cleaned regularly.
Boyd has hired a microbiologist and installed a thermal-camera to take customers’ temperatures in addition to standard Covid-safe measures, all at a cost to the family-run business.
It’s a cost Boyd and her husband can barely afford. A week after reopening in September, takings were down 90% compared to before the closure. Boyd told the media at the time they’d only last four more weeks unless things picked up.
Five months later, they’re still open – but only just. They’re now 50% down. “We’re still barely hanging on” Boyd says. “I’m meeting our accountant in two weeks and it’s very, very scary. I don’t know if it’s sustainable to stay open.”
In a cruel fate twist, her second Potts Point branch of Thai Rock also had a confirmed infection later in July, leading to six cases traced back to it.
“It was devastating,” Boyd says. “Each new infection was a nail to my body.”
Thai Rock was one of a number of Australian businesses that have been named as places where the virus spread – from the Avalon Bowlo on Sydney’s northern beaches to Melbourne’s wealthy yacht and golf clubs.
Some have been able to bounce back; others have struggled. What do they think is the biggest differentiation factor in the Covid business comeback? How the media covered the outbreaks – from the semantics to whether a shock jock decided to make you his bete noire of the day.
Leaving Covid behind
Following the Crossroads hotel Covid cluster, Planet Fitness in Casula in Sydney’s west had a confirmed infection.
It had an immediate impact: the gym opted to close for 14 days, memberships were frozen and the gym was mentioned in several media outlets.
“The media initially worked against us,” chief operating officer Danielle Monroy says. “Some customers were fearful. We saw more western Sydney clients freezing memberships.”
There was a direct financial impact but the gym franchise – which has five branches – quickly bounced back. It’s now performing better than before the Covid-related closure. “People realise how working out improves your mental health and more people than ever are now prioritising that,” Monroy says.
Something fortuitous aided the “almost immediate” comeback.
“We’d already planned to move to a brand new premises within the same centre and that incidentally fell as we reopened,” Monroy says. “In people’s minds, Covid was left in that old facility.”
Crushed by the media
Media outlets dubbed the Wetherill Park outbreak the “Thai Rock supercluster”. The phrase was pithy, catchy and unfortunate.
“We were on the news daily for about seven weeks. Thai Rock was constantly pulled in as the outbreak’s source,” Boyd says.
A PR crisis became a disaster when shock jock Ray Hadley accused the couple of defying health instructions. They say that the 2GB radio host had neither met them nor contacted them before airing the allegations.
“On air, for two weeks straight, he blamed us for the virus spreading … saying I’d knowingly infected people. Saying he was seeking criminal action against me for not isolating. All untrue – I was literally listening in horror while in isolation,” she says.
She says the knock-on effect was overwhelming. Police visited her three times to check she was isolating. Then more media arrived. “TV camped out. The neighbours got annoyed – at one point it didn’t stop for three days. We were under siege,” she says.
Then the abuse started. Online comments, threats, voicemails, vitriol.
“I was told to ‘go back to being a prostitute’. One said if my husband wanted a [Thai] woman so badly why not go to Thailand and get one there. I’ve lived here most of my life, raised my kids here and never wanted to play the racism card, but that’s what this was. Racism like I’ve never seen before.”
Feeling “mentally broken”, afraid all potential customers would now be deterred, and unable to get out of bed, Boyd sought professional mental health support to make her feel strong enough to reopen.
One thing did give her a boost. Hearing about the tough time she’d endured, strangers travelled across the city to dine at her restaurant, telling her as they arrived this wasn’t her fault; this highly infectious virus affects everyone. “It lifted me mentally to know there were people who weren’t unfairly judging me,” she says.
A spokesperson for 2GB said: “2GB stands by its story and had multiple sources which confirmed the report”.
Back to normal
Another Thai eatery, the Smile Buffalo restaurant in Black Rock, Victoria, reopened its doors on 11 January after a cluster of 10 Covid cases was traced to it in December.
At first, takings were 50% down – but now, owner Navara Kingtada says, they’ve bounced back to normal.
“Locals are so supportive – they’ve returned because they believe in us and know it’s not our fault and we did all the right Covid-safe things,” she says.
“It was so shocking when I saw the first case traced to my business. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.”
She was relieved none of her 10 staff were infected, but then the news reports rolled in. “I was so worried when I saw my business name in the media,” she says.
She also copped abuse. “I received threatening and abusive phone calls, which made me sad. But I don’t want to focus on them, I want to thank the Black Rock and surrounding communities. We’ve all supported each other through this and chosen hope over fear.”
Prof Massimo Garbuio from the University of Sydney’s Business School says Australian consumers are, largely, supporting their local businesses even after an outbreak: “They’re comfortable because Covid-safe measures are very visible – they can see the proactive hygienic approach most companies are taking with cleaning and contact tracing.”
Stephanie Boyd’s Potts Point Thai Rock branch has been picking up lately. She has recently pivoted the business slightly to entice the area’s locals.
“We’ve introduced a cabaret show every Friday where drag queens Cherry, Nadia and Catherine perform as diners eat.”
“It’s brought fun back into the place,” she says. “After everything my family went through, we needed that.”
Gary Nunn is a freelance journalist. Twitter: @garynunn1