Stallholders at Belconnen Fresh Food Markets are preparing to breach their lease agreements and retain produce stands outside their stores, because they believe a direction from landlords will damage their businesses.
The requirements from the markets' owners are more stringent than those required by ACT Health authorities, leading to contention between stallholders and the market's management.
In a letter sent to tenants on April 17, Belconnen Markets general manager Christopher Young told tenants they must get rid of produce stands in the common area outside their stores by April 23.
But six of the businesses are refusing to comply with the new measures.
"The ACT senior manager of environmental health has strongly encouraged us to do more in relation to social distancing," the letter to tenants said.
The letter said the new measures would be enforced under their lease agreements.
Mr Young said that while the markets have not been directed to change operations he felt obliged to make these changes for public safety.
There is no place for these ASX listed property companies to bully our local businesses.Canberra Liberals Alistair Coe
"We don't have an explicit instruction from the ACT government but we do have a responsibility under the public safety emergency direction and the health and safety act," he said.
Ken Irvine, co-owner of two businesses unwilling to comply with the new measures said this instruction from management would severely damage his business.
Mr Irvine said removing the stock outright would impact revenue, and moving stock into his store would make social distancing difficult.
"It's a third of our retail area, you can't just compact it into what else is already there," he said.
"There's no valid reason for moving it. The general opinion of other retailers is exactly the same."
A number of other retailers who are keeping their produce stands up said they felt intimidated by management, but wouldn't speak on the record due to fears of repercussions.
Elanor Investment Group bought the markets in 2018 from the Efkarpidis family who had owned the markets for 25 years.
There has been tension between stallholders and the owners of the markets since plans for a major redevelopment were announced in 2019.
"I'd describe what [Elanor] is doing as bullying, it's like an intimidation over you," Mr Irvine said.
But Mr Young said that this action taken by the tenants is "selfish".
"It's selfish. It's putting their own self interest above the safety of other traders and the public," Mr Young said.
Canberra Liberals leader Alistair Coe spoke in support of the tenants.
"There is no place for these ASX listed property companies to bully our local businesses," he said.
"Nobody should be using a crisis to take advantage of local businesses who are already doing it tough."
Mr Young disputed the Liberal leader's claims.
"I wonder if [Coe] would feel safe visiting the market if he knew the stands are restricting social distancing," he said.
"We don't want a market that customers could feel unsafe to shop at."
Elanor Investment Group co-head of real estate Michael Baliva said that these measures are purely a safety precaution.
"Our request for the retailers to comply with our instructions is purely as a response to public safety concerns in the current coronavirus pandemic," Mr Baliva said.
"We take our public safety responsibilities seriously.
"The retailers at the Belconnen markets have benefited significantly from increased patronage during the coronavirus pandemic relative to other businesses across the country which are suffering significant losses.
"We believe our request in the interest of public safety is not unreasonable under the circumstances."
Mr Baliva wouldn't comment on what consequences there would be for tenants that didn't obey the direction.
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