Surf instructors are being laid off and businesses threatened as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown.
‘It’s pretty much decimated our business in the space of three days.’
Those are the stark and sobering words of Sean Riley, owner of Byron Bay’s Soul Surf School, about the economic impact the coronavirus has had on his business. Speaking from self-isolation after returning from a trip to Japan a week ago, Sean recounted the unenviable task he had of laying off 20 of his staff, most of whom were his mates and had been with him since he started the business 12 years ago.
With rapid closures to Australia’s national and state borders, the international and domestic tourists Sean has relied on to support his successful, year-round business have disappeared, leaving him with zero income. With two kids and a third on the way, plus a mortgage, it’s put him and his family in a precarious position - but he knows they’re not the only ones.
Numerous large-scale surf schools operate out of Byron, and with no way of knowing how long the coronavirus will plague Australian society and the world at large, Sean believes it could take at least 18 months for the industry to bounce back there. With the price of shopfront rent ultra-steep in the trendy Australian beach town, he also predicts a lot of other businesses will go under in the coming months.
‘There’s no way those cafes in the main street are going to stay open in the next two to three months,’ he said.
Even for Byron-based surf schools that don’t employ numerous staff and rely on the backpacker trade, like surfing legend Rusty Miller’s business, which focuses on small groups and individual lessons, the impact of the coronavirus has been swift and devastating.
‘We’ve lost all our business,’ Rusty’s wife, Tricia Shantz, said.
‘We were booked fully to Easter. Now we have absolutely none.’
Over the border at Surfers Paradise and Burleigh Heads, former world number two, Cheyne Horan, is still operating his surf school, but believes as a non-essential business he’ll most likely have to shut down soon.
‘We think we’ll probably have to stop trading,’ he said.
‘We’re playing it by ear.’
Cheyne said the impact of the coronavirus had hit at a time when his business traditionally transitioned into a quieter period, but he’d still seen cancellations as a result of the crisis.
Given the customer-facing nature of delivering surf lessons, Cheyne and his employees had also taken steps to reduce their risks of contracting the virus. These included instructing all customers to wear their own gear and ensuring there was no physical contact between the instructors and students.
Down in Sydney, surf schools are also feeling the harsh economic downturn the coronavirus has brought on, but for different reasons.
With Waverley Council closing all beaches within its local government area, surf schools such as Bondi’s Let’s Go Surfing have been forced to shut up shop, with a message on the company’s website reading: ‘Due to the temporary closure of beaches in Sydney we are not operating our surf sessions at the moment. We will keep you informed as things develop.’
On the Northern Beaches such harsh measures are yet to be enforced, but Manly Surf School owner, Matt Grainger, says he’s lost the majority of his business, with all the local high schools cancelling their lessons. The high performance surf coaching gym the school runs has also been closed in line with government guidelines. This has forced Matt to cut back his staff months ahead of schedule.
‘We’ve gone from 50 staff to six. We’ve basically gone to a June roster in March,’ he said.
‘If this happened between November and January, we’d probably be broke.’
Unsure of where things would go from here, Matt said he was trying to keep an open mind and was grateful for any lessons the business was still getting. While his surf school was taking measures to protect against the potential spread of coronavirus, he also believed the ocean was one of the safest places to be at the moment, both physically and mentally.
‘It sounds selfish to say it, but the surf has been good lately,’ he said.
‘It keeps you sane. It seems like the best place to be.’