“I can’t be out by five – I can’t pack up the pharmacy,” says Anja Faustein, owner of the Elizabeth Street Pharmacy in Melbourne, on Monday morning – only days after her landlord told her to leave
The Elizabeth Street Pharmacy is averaging 12 scripts a day thanks to the lack of foot traffic in Melbourne’s CBD, as a result of Victoria’s ongoing second COVID-19 lockdown.
Months of negotiation with her landlord have resulted in Ms Faustein being told to close and pack up her business.
Many pharmacies located in CBDs and shopping centres have been hard hit by the downturn, as their usual customers stay closer to home.
“The first lockdown was bad – I had a downturn of about 70%, so I was trading on about 30%,” said Ms Faustein.
“We got our hopes up, because people slowly came back. But the second lockdown completely decimated everything. It’s a ghost town.
“There are no tourists, and office workers are not allowed in the area. In Elizabeth Street, those are my patients: I have tourists and office people, and some students, nobody else.”
Back in April, she began to negotiate with her landlord, a private operator, for rent relief, but was told that they were prepared to offer relief for the month of April only.
“I said no, I’m not going to do that – I need to have a proper solution,” said Ms Faustein.
Negotiations “went backwards and forwards” for a while, with the matter escalating to the Victorian Small Business Commission, and then to mediation.
Ms Faustein said no agreement was reached at mediation, because the landlord’s offer placed a greater onus on Ms Faustein than set out as a minimum in the legislation enacted during the pandemic.
Though both parties negotiated in good faith, no resolution was made. A certificate was then issued to state that negotiations had failed.
Four weeks later, “A breach of lease was given to me, where they claimed the full amount of rent for the month of April to September, without any more relief or reduction or waiver,” she said.
She said she has been given legal advice that this is in breach of the legislation, but her understanding is that her landlord has been advised that there is a loophole in the legislation.
The landlord sent Ms Faustein a termination notice which she said is in breach of regulation nine of COVID-19 omnibus legislation, and said that when they would not withdraw it, her lawyer eventually advised her to accept their repudiation of the lease.
She was told to vacate the premises by five pm Monday, 26 October.
“I can’t be out by five,” Ms Faustein said.
“The next problem I have is the legal obligation to notify the Pharmacy Board at least 14 days before I close a pharmacy business. I’m waiting for the Board to get back to me.”
Ms Faustein had owned the store since 2004, and the pharmacy had been operating in that location for at least 50 years.
Anthony Tassone, Victorian state branch president of the Pharmacy Guild, told the AJP that for months the Guild, on behalf of its members, has stated publicly that community pharmacies are in no way immune to the devastating economic and other impacts of the COVID restrictions in Victoria.
Those in the Melbourne CBD, airport and large shopping and medical centres are particularly hard hit, Mr Tassone said.
“We can only hope that the latest matter of Elizabeth Pharmacy… is not the ‘canary in the coal mine’ of other pharmacies having serious disputes with their landlords resulting in eviction.”
He said that the Guild continues to support its members in helping facilitate connections with the Victorian Small Business Commissioner, who “has been very active in providing mediation in disputes for small business tenants and landlords and providing guidance to small businesses of their rights and obligations”. Guild members can also talk to Lease1 about their lease, he said.
“From time to time the Guild will also provide referrals of specialist independent legal advisors to members to consider in acting on their behalf.
“There are a range of obligations that pharmacy business license holders have under both state and territory regulation and federally with the PBS – which the Guild also assists in helping our members navigate.
“Whilst as a city we are on the cusp of a re-opening of the economy as part of the Victorian government’s ‘roadmap to recovery,’ the huge challenges faced by small businesses across Melbourne won’t be resolved overnight—and we do not want to see the preventable closures of pharmacies and potential interruptions to patient care.
“The COVID pandemic has been extremely difficult on tenants and landlords, and we urge all lessors to be mindful of the terribly challenging circumstances their tenants are in right now and that all parties act in good faith and in accordance with the law.
“The Guild continues to advocate to the Victorian government of how community pharmacies as primary healthcare providers can be supported to see through the other side of this global pandemic.”
Ms Faustein is calling on State Premier Dan Andrews to end Victoria’s lockdown now that COVID-19 infection have dropped dramatically.
“I don’t know if Dan Andrews wants us to have another Detroit!” she said.
“My message to landlords is not to be so greedy, and to try and work with community pharmacies.
“And to community pharmacies, it’s stand up for your rights – and speak the truth.”
Pharmacists can contact the Pharmacists Support Service on 1300 244 910 for peer support related to the demands of being a pharmacist in Australia.
Members can call PDL on 1300 854 838 for support from a Professional Officer.