Business groups are calling for all Melbourne office employees to be allowed to return to the workplace within weeks, safety permitting, to help revive the city’s economy.
The call comes after Premier Daniel Andrews announced on Tuesday that 75 per cent of public and private sector staff could get back to their desks from next Monday, accelerating the return-to-work plan after Victoria recorded its 27th day without a local case of COVID-19.
While up to 50 per cent of office workers have been allowed back into workplaces since January 11 under the state government’s revised coronavirus restritions, far fewer seem to have opted to do so. But the number of workers travelling into the city is increasing each day.
Passenger numbers are slowly increasing on public transport in Melbourne, but are still well below pre-pandemic levels. Credit:Wayne Taylor
The Premier’s announcement was welcome news for business owners in the CBD, who have been starved of customers since working-from-home orders were first issued for all but essential workers in March last year.
The increase seemed to catch even some state government departments on the hop, with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning telling staff those still working from home should continue doing so until it sorted through how to accomodate increased numbers under its COVID-safe plan.
On Tuesday the footpaths outside Flinders Street Station and Southern Cross Station were at their busiest during the morning peak since April last year.
City of Melbourne pedestrian sensors counted 1285 people outside Flinders Street Station between 8am and 9am, slightly more than the 1114 people counted on Monday morning.
There were 863 people counted walking past Southern Cross Station during Tuesday’s morning peak, up from 786 on Monday, though the figure is still way down on pre-pandemic levels.
On Monday, public transport patronage was at just 37 per cent of pre-COVID levels, an increase of 3 per cent from Friday.
On the roads, traffic volumes were closer to normal, at 89 per cent of pre-pandemic demand.
Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Paul Guerra said bringing 75 per cent of workers back into the workplace was the right step forward for workplaces and retailers.
“To get that daytime traffic back up, it will create a buzz that the city’s been lacking, and it’s good news for the CBD,” Mr Guerra said.
But he believes 100 per cent of staff should be back within weeks if safety can be managed in common areas such as lifts.
Danni Hunter, Victorian executive director of the Property Council, said bringing public sector restrictions in line with the private sector would promote confidence.
“They’re a huge volume of Melbourne’s workforce, the public sector, so it’s fantastic to have that boost for Melbourne’s CBD. And it really will give the private sector a lot of confidence.”
She wants the government to work towards allowing 100 per cent of workers in their offices for early March.
Trade has been slowly increasing each weekday for upmarket Melbourne sandwich chain EARL Canteen, but its owners say they aren’t expecting to see 75 per cent of office workers back at work in the CBD any time soon.
EARL Canteen founder and director Simon O’Regan at Collins Place in the Melbourne CBD on Tuesday.Credit:Joe Armao
EARL Canteen director Jackie Middleton said there had been improvements in takings in recent weeks, after the last change in office rules and now that the holiday period had passed.
“We do see a change from day to day; it’s that rapid,” Ms Middleton said.
“Even with that little upturn, we’re still only sitting at about 30 per cent of this time last year, so it’s still dramatically down.”
EARL Canteen has six eateries in the CBD but has temporarily closed its canteen at 360 Collins Street.
Although many employees are still working from home, Ms Middleton remained optimistic that more would soon return to the office.
“I sense that it is going to build, and I sense there is momentum of people coming back and there’s enthusiasm for people to come back.
”We’re hoping by maybe this time next month that we might see a little bit more normality … If we could get to 75 per cent of trading next month then I would be beyond thrilled. I can’t see that happening at the moment, but we’re working towards it.“
Lord mayor Sally Capp said getting workers back into the city would be “critical for our economic revival”.
“More people in the city means more money coming into local businesses, which keeps Melburnians in jobs,” she said.
“Our economic recovery has started, but it needs co-ordinated and consistent support to ensure we bounce back as quickly as possible.”
The Premier reminded commuters that masks needed to be worn on public transport, but said cleaning would be stepped up further.
More public transport announcements would be made later this week in anticipation of extra commuters from Monday, Mr Andrews said.
Employers must keep a record of everyone who enters their building for more than 15 minutes.
With Samantha Hutchinson, Timna Jacks and Michael Fowler
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