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Fear and confusion in the windswept, suddenly empty streets of Footscray

Shop windows in ordinarily bustling shopping precincts are posted with notes to customers telling the same story. Coronavirus has closed the doors. Remaining traders wonder how long they can continue. Else Kennedy reports.

Fear and confusion in the windswept, suddenly empty streets of Footscray

Footscray shop owner and mother of six Fartun Mohamed is "very worried ... very confused". She's never been on Centrelink, is uncertain about her entitlements, and already struggling to pay rent and bills. “Already no one has been buying clothes for two weeks."

Words and pictures by Else Kennedy
 

Fartun Mohamed, a quietly spoken mother of six, has only ever closed the Salaaf Variety Shop, her clothing and accessories store on Nicholson Street in Footscray, for weddings and religious holidays.

Now she wonders how long she can – or should – keep the doors open. With the announcement on Sunday night by Prime Minister Scott Morrison of what he called stage one restrictions, limiting restaurants and cafes to take-away services only, and religious venues, gyms, pubs and cinemas closed, “I’m very worried, I’m very confused”, Mohamed said.

“This is stage one. I don’t know what stage two will be.”

Around half the shops in the Footscray Business Centre were still open late yesterday afternoon, the other half having shuttered their windows and posted handwritten signs on the glass explaining their closure was due to the coronavirus pandemic. Shopkeepers still with their doors open were unsure whether the new rules applied to them.

“I don’t think I have to close the store, but tomorrow that could change,” said Mohamed.

For her the biggest worry is being able to pay the rent. “Already no one has been buying clothes for two weeks,” she said. “People get the money from the government, but they just buy food, they don’t buy clothes. And they save, because they are scared.”

“I pay more than $2000 per month in rent just for my house, plus the rent for the shop,” she said. “I don’t know if I can get the (government stimulus payment) because I am a sole trader.”

“I have never been to Centrelink,” she said. “I’m worried even if I apply (for a payment) it will take months before I get any money.”

Adane Mekonnen at the coffee shop he set up four years ago. As he closed the doors last night, he wondered when – or if – he would open them again. Photo: Else Kennedy

Adane Mekonnen at the coffee shop he set up four years ago. As he closed the doors last night, he wondered when – or if – he would open them again. Photo: Else Kennedy

Around the corner at Mehretina Cafe, Adane Mekonnen was cleaning and taking out the rubbish before locking the door for what could be the last time.

He set up the coffee shop and billiard hall four years ago, and said he didn’t know when he would be able to re-open, or whether the business will survive the closure.

“You can see how the business is going,” he said, gesturing to the metal stools stacked on tables and the sheet pulled over the pool table with an expression of worry and exhaustion. “We’re closing.”

“Normally at this time this place would be packed,” he said. “There would be people everywhere, even outside. Now it is empty.”

“We prefer to close, because we want to stay at home and wait for (the coronavirus crisis) to be over,” he said. “If we are open, even just for takeaway, we can’t stop people coming in the door (if they are unwell), and how do we know we won’t get sick?”

In the meantime “we have to pay the rent … That’s the biggest problem.”

Phone technician Sam worries about supporting his disabled daughter as his clientele vanish and the economy tumbles. Picture: Else Kennedy

Phone technician Sam worries about supporting his disabled daughter as his clientele vanish and the economy tumbles. Picture: Else Kennedy

At M&L Phone Repairs in the normally busy Nicholson Street Mall, Sam said his business had been struggling all week.

While he spoke to The Citizen, a few passersby hurried along the mall with their heads down, several wearing medical masks. “The mall is dead. There’s no one here” he said. “My customers are scared to leave the house.”

“I think the economic crash will be worse than the virus,” he said.

He’s worried about how he will support his disabled daughter if business doesn’t pick up. She hasn’t been able to access Centrelink this week with website outages and large crowds queuing at the Footscray office.

He has been taking precautions against contracting the virus, wiping down customer’s devices with methylated spirits and wearing gloves, and said he planned to keep the store open as long as he could.

Messages like these, posted on the window of a Footscray Vietnamese eatery, are appearing in windows along the normally lively Footscray shopping precinct.

Messages like these, posted on the window of a Footscray Vietnamese eatery, are appearing in windows along the normally lively Footscray shopping precinct.

Many restaurants on Barkly Street, the main road that runs through Footscray, were closed on Monday. A message in the window of Dong Ba Vietnamese restaurant said it was closed for “the health and safety of both our staff and customers”.

Barkly street connects the western suburbs to central Melbourne. Ordinarily it is a busy, congested thoroughfare with commuters pushing through to their homes, and locals peeling off to spend the evening in local bars and restaurants, a thriving scene most nights of the week.

But on Monday night the roads were largely empty, crows and squalling seagulls undisturbed by traffic as they picked at scraps and garbage bins.

“We don’t know how long this will last,” said Adam. “Everyone is worried.”

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