Central city businesses struggle as employees continue working from home

Central city businesses in Auckland and Wellington are crying out for people to return to the office. 

Many office workers are continuing to work from home, despite the declining threat of a COVID-19 outbreak. There is only one known case left in the country, and no new cases have been detected in the past week.

A recent survey found three-quarters of Kiwis believe they were just as productive working from home and were saving money and time by not having to commute.

Auckland CBD business association Heart of the City says the result is many businesses have minimal customers, while some can not open as their regular customers haven't returned.  

Chief executive Viv Beck says the city is only seeing a third of the 138,000 people it normally would every weekday.

"That's a lot fewer customers for the small businesses, and a lot less spend. The spend at the moment is only about 50 percent of what it would normally be." 

Beck says that equates to $2.5 million less in revenue every day. 

"That makes a massive difference to the small businesses in the city centre that are really looking forward to welcoming them back - cafes, retail, entertainment, hospitality." 

Wellington has similar problems, with about 30 percent fewer people in the CBD than normal. 

"Everybody is still working from home so it's pretty hard," Piyush Katewa, owner of the Ministry of Food cafe, told RNZ. His only customers at the moment are Government and corporate employees.

But he understands opening up before COVID-19 is truly eliminated carries its own risks. 

"If that lasts until the end of the year, it will be hard for many businesses. But I guess if they open up completely, we will be back to the start and we don't want that,

"So we're hoping for the best and it will be sorted quickly and we can be back to normal life in New Zealand."

Queen St
Usually bustling streets in the Auckland CBD were silent during lockdown. Photo credit: Getty

Beck says CBD bosses should try and get their employees back in by staggering hours, so they're not all in the office at once and to ease the pressure on public transport, which is operating under reduced capacity to meet social distancing guidelines.

"To see people back in the office, potentially doing staggered hours coming in - which would be a great way of congestion." 

The struggling hospitality industry is echoing calls from business leaders to move to alert level 1.

Hospitality NZ president Jeremy Smith says it is currently hard to operate.

"The level 2 restrictions that we currently have made it very difficult to run a business... limited capacity, can't fit more people in... We want to be able to provide hospitality to our guests in our bars and restaurants in the way we used to - it's not full of restrictions, it's not telling people to sit down, it's not telling people they can't dance." 

The Government will review the guidelines on June 8. 

Smith says in the meantime, going out isn't always a pleasant experience.

"A metre spacing between tables, means we're at half-capacity in most of our businesses. People get annoyed because they're queueing up and can't get in, people get annoyed because we're constantly telling them to sit down." 

Auckland University professor Shaun Hendy told RNZ on Friday there could still be an undetected case or two of COVID-19 out there, as it can spread asymptomatically.

"As we come back together, as we go through these thresholds, get back into social gatherings, there is the possibility that we'll have another spreading event and we'll see more cases."

While New Zealand now has good contact tracing systems, allowing massive groups of people to gather will stretch those resources, he said.