Sydney Workers Shun Office, Opting for Malls as Lockdown Lifts
(Bloomberg) -- Sydney’s city center offices aren’t yet feeling the love. While suburban cafes, shops and hairdressers have seen a flood of business as Australia’s most populous city emerges from a 107-day lockdown, the central business district is seeing only a trickle of returnees.
Google mobility data show workplace activity in the City of Sydney was down 62% on its pre-Covid baseline a day after the lockdown was lifted last week. While still an improvement on the week prior, by contrast, retail and recreation across New South Wales state was down just 23%.
To be sure there’s many factors weighing on the office return, notably that schools won’t reopen fully until Oct. 25, leaving parents juggling home schooling. And today is the first day office workers don’t need to wear masks at their desks, something business leaders hope will lead to a rebound in attendance.
Still the tepid return shows the mountain there is to climb before the city center is bustling again. Occupancy levels in Sydney’s CBD offices were just 4% of pre-COVID levels in September, according to the Property Council of Australia.
“We need a concerted effort from business, people and government to come together to ensure our public spaces and central districts can bounce back,” PCA executive director for NSW Luke Achterstraat said in a statement.
When it comes to leisure and consumer spending, the picture is much more robust.
Personal grooming from haircuts to nail salons were one of the biggest beneficiaries of the first week of loosened restrictions. Spending on beauty services was up 870% last Monday -- the first day of reopening -- compared to the previous week with nail salons seeing an astonishing 2,300% jump, according to data from economists at Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd.
There’s also evidence of a pent up demand when it comes to breaking bread. Data from restaurant booking operator OpenTable shows a clear spike in the number of seated diners in NSW.
Yet, there’s still a long way to go before things are close to normal. Data from locational technology provider TomTom shows while the volume of weekday traffic on the roads has picked-up, congestion is still well below normal.
As the NSW vaccine rollout continues to gather pace, businesses of all stripes are eyeing the next phase of reopening. From Nov. 1 fully-vaccinated international returnees will no longer need to quarantine on their return and from Dec. 1 there will be a further easing of restrictions.
The calendar is also likely to play an important role in which sectors see a rapid rebound. The southern hemisphere’s summer begins in December, and many Australian workers traditionally take an extended break combining summer and Christmas vacations. That’s good news for bars and restaurants hungry for business -- but less so for city center businesses hoping to see offices bustling again.
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