8 May 2020

Matamata bar owner opens up about Covid-19 cluster outbreak

From Checkpoint, 5:15 pm on 8 May 2020

The owner of the bar at the centre of Matamata's Covid-19 cluster says he feels partly responsible for the outbreak in his community. 

The cluster - one of the biggest in New Zealand - grew to 77 cases, including one death, since mid-March. 

Despite that, locals have rallied around Jacob Henderson and his family. Now he and other business owners say Matamata is ready to shift to alert level 2. 

In his first on-camera interview, Henderson told Checkpoint he was in utter disbelief when he heard his pub - Redoubt Bar - was linked to Matamata's first Covid-19 case. 

"Who would've thought it would have happened so much here… When the first person was crook, we didn't think for a moment it was going to be [the new coronavirus]. I remember thinking, 'nah they've just got a cough, there's no way it could be that'.  

Health officials initially believed a St Patrick's Day party on 17 March led to the rural Waikato cluster. They now say some with Covid-19 visited the bar either side of that date.

Many weeks have passed since that fateful event, but the fallout remains fresh in Henderson's mind.

"All these people were ringing us for advice, a lot - five, 10 people an hour would be messaging you saying, 'What do I do? I was in your place Tuesday, who was there?' We were pretty popular for a little while.

"You couldn't help but feel bad. You did feel responsible, because once it got out there people would get hold of you, and they're asking you what to do."

On the front windows of Henderson's Redoubt Bar, locals have taped paper hearts and messages of support. 

His staff used to pull pints of beer, now they brew takeaway coffee for their steady stream of loyal customers.

"So many people have been getting in contact with us, and the hearts on the door, that sort of thing. Even last night, I got a text from a chap I hadn't spoken to for a year or so just saying, 'We're thinking of you'."

While it is the town where New Zealand's third largest cluster started, local business owners like Jacob Henderson say Matamata is more than ready to move on and emerge from lockdown.

Further down the main street, Sports World owner Chris Bungard is partially open under level 3 rules. 

"It is tough. I'm reasonably well-established, so I'm lucky I suppose… My overheads aren't too bad. But for younger people in business and that sort of thing, I really feel for them."

He said lifting the lockdown was crucial for those just starting out.

"We need to get to level 2 and create some business happening in the town. We're very lucky, we're surrounded by the farming fraternity, which have still got their income going. 

"They basically could be the little town's saviour, a town like Matamata - we need that outside influence or expenditure coming back into the town."

But even with a move out of lockdown, Bungard believes the real hurt is yet to come.

"I think a lot of little rural towns, like Matamata, in two or three months' time will be a totally different atmosphere and vibe to what they are. 

"We're trying to be positive, everyone is trying to get on with life. I think the time has come really that we need to focus more on getting the doors open, getting people in. In a controlled environment, sure, but let's get some trade happening."

Bungard worries the country is too focused on eliminating Covid-19, and he is concerned Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's self-proclaimed perfectionism may be costing the economy too much. 

"It just worries me that [the government] want to be seen around the world as being the first country to have zero cases… But at what cost? At what cost to small businesses like mine and other businesses around the country that are really hurting more than we are?

"We're battling, we're keeping our staff on and that sort of thing, which is great. But how many other little businesses are actually going to close because of this zero tolerance that seems to be plucked out of the air? Is it even possible? I don't know." 

Matamata-Piako Mayor Ash Tanner said the district's snowballing Covid-19 cluster took locals completely by surprise.

"We're really lucky in our district, though, because we do have a lot of essential work," he told Checkpoint

"The dairy factories, meat works and primary producers. So we've been lucky in that respect compared to a lot of areas. But, yeah, definitely the level 3 move was a good one where some businesses could get back up and running. 

"We've got where we are now from all the great work from people abiding by the rules, the Ministry of Health guidelines that they're setting. 

"Every time we go down a level, it's more businesses can operate, which is great and that's what we need." 

Waikato District Health Board had hoped to declare an end to the Matamata cluster in about a week, but Thursday's new case has dashed those plans.

To reach that milestone, the area must remain Covid-19 free for 28 days.