5 May 2020

Confusing, inconsistent lockdown rules for Auckland fruit and vege shops

From Checkpoint, 5:43 pm on 5 May 2020

Two family-owned Auckland fruit shops are criticising New Zealand's level 4 lockdown rules as confusing.

Longstanding businesses Jack Lum in Remuera, and KC Loo Fruit Centre in Mt Eden, initially believed they could open during level 4 restrictions, but were ultimately forced to close.

Both greengrocers told Checkpoint they could have offered safer retail spaces than the country's big supermarkets during lockdown.  

"There's no point arguing, because you're not going to win anyway," Lum said. 

He initially believed he could open for business under level 4, but two days into the lockdown, police officers showed up for what they called a routine check. 

"A couple of days later a senior officer came into the shop and he wanted to have a look at the papers. I said, 'we haven't got any papers that allow us to open, we did register with MPI [Ministry of Primary Industries], but we haven't got it yet'.

"I said to him, 'can we trade out the day?'. He said, 'no you have to close right away'.

"At that time our truck came back from the market with virtually a full load of goods, getting ready for the weekend trade. It was almost half-loaded anyway. We had to load that back onto the truck.

"And he sort of waited there until we were fully-loaded, before he drove away." 

Lum had planned on staying open until the first Sunday of level 4 restrictions, before closing voluntarily because staff wanted to keep within their family bubbles.

He believed he should have been allowed to stay open for that first week of full lockdown.

"You can still operate but still keep to the 2-metre distancing and just let two or three people in at any one time. Because a lot of the shoppers that go to the supermarket would come here and buy their fruit and veges anyway, so it's the same people."

As it turned out, the MPI felt it was okay too. A week after the police shutdown, Lum says the department gave him the green light to open.

By that stage, though, his shop was shut. Some extra stock had gone to a hostel for boys, while the rest was sold to fruit shops allowed to stay open.

'Small shopkeepers can provide a very safe, secure shopping environment'

In Mt Eden, Frances Loo said she found the lockdown rules just as puzzling.

Under level 3 the business is keeping busy with customers coming in and with contactless deliveries.  

But at the start of the level 4 lockdown the shop initially believed it could open in the same way a supermarket could, based on information from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment's website.

"Every indication was that we could operate, until we heard the interview with the deputy head of MBIE on the Wednesday morning just prior to the lockdown, and at that stage we thought 'no the retail has to close'," she said.

While supportive of the lockdown, Loo said multiple lessons must be taken from it.

"We need to take the learnings from this to do it better and certainly the clarity of information, the speed of response and just the left hand knowing what the right hand's doing, where there have been conflicting responses or certainly leaving things open to interpretation. Those sorts of things do need to be tightened." 

The greengrocer's turnover is down about 60 percent, but Loo believes it is better off than many other small businesses.

"We're very lucky that this is a well-established business and it doesn't have any debt. So we've committed to paying our staff 100 percent of their earnings for the 12-week period. 

"That's been subsidised by the wage subsidy, but that doesn't fully cover it."

Loo said while the 12-week wage subsidy appeared generous, many businesses experienced a drop-off before the lockdown, and would take some time to recover once it is lifted.

She maintains small businesses could have provided safe retail services during lockdown.

"People do try to physically distance in the supermarket, but the narrowness of the aisles or just someone thinking they can quickly sneak past and grab a particular item. If I'm honest I do think that the small shopkeepers can provide a very safe, secure shopping environment."

Epsom MP David Seymour said Lum's and Loo's shops were institutions in his electorate. 

"People cannot understand why they've been put in this illogical position, that they have to drive to a supermarket shared with 50 other people, while their beloved local fruit store goes out of business," he told Checkpoint.

Jack Lum in front of his first shop, Remuera, Auckland, 1970

Jack Lum in front of his first shop, Remuera, Auckland, 1970 Photo: Supplied

In Remuera, 76-year-old Lum said his future remained uncertain. He has thought about closing for good, but now said he may open at level 2. 

"We'll see what level 2 is going to be like. I know there will be still some restrictions, but it'll probably be a lot better than level 3. But the way I was looking when they went to level 3 and some people are not obeying the rules and having parties, and just going stupid, it might be extended to go back to level 4. Who knows what's going to happen. Just going to wait for an announcement and see what it is."