21 May 2020

Wellington bar owners urge locals to return for a drink

From Checkpoint, 6:20 pm on 21 May 2020

Please buy a beer - that's the plea from bar owners as they reopen their doors today for the first time in almost two months.

Forced to wait a week longer before they could open under level two, they still had to comply with three S rules: ensuring that customers needed to be seated, separated, and served by a only one person.

They would also be restricted to a maximum 100 people in the venue at a time, and dancing is banned.  

In Wellington, Panhead Brewery on Tory street has been hard at work making sure tables are properly spaced and putting contact tracing systems in place. 

Its owner and local Hospitality NZ representative Matt McLaughlin said he was expecting business to be tough.

"We're going into a market that's the big unknown but what we do know is that there's no tourists, we know that only 50 percent of the workforce in Wellington City are coming back to work at the moment. 

"Some of those people are reluctant to come to an on-premise environment, we're going into a cold winter with no events on. 

"Our market ... at best is probably going to sit at about 50 percent and when your margins are between five and 10 percent, running at 50 percent is, yeah, near impossible."

McLaughlin said the council had agreed to shut the city's main nightlife Courtney Place to street traffic over the coming nights to ensure there is enough space available.

"Courtenay Place is going to be closed off ... we hope that its' not gonna turn into a street party because that's not what it's all about but we hope poeple will be able to be safe." 

What's not known today is how many of these establishments will stay standing after the winter, and how many will become another Covid casualty.

McLaughlin asked punters to come support their local operators. 

"Come out and support your local operators, Ashley Bloomfield says it's safe to do so ... come on have a few beers and something to eat." 

Down the road at Ivy Bar, owner Steven Mawhinney was getting ready for their reopening - hosting a Drag Show on Friday.

Being underground and usually not having many tables has proven challenging.

"The new restrictions are basically a complete opposite of what we are and what we do. We used to only have about six tables in our little lounge stage area and the rest of it was people standing, drinking, dancing. 

"We've managed to rearrange it and have got 16 tables, we've got tables on the dance floor and tables on the stage and we've had to train our staff who are normally just used to working behind the bar how to do table service, which none of us have ever done." 

Pre-covid Ivy could accommodate about one hundred people - that's now been cut in half. Mawhinney said staffing was safe with the wage subsidy for now, but after that one of the six roles may have to go.

The Bog Irish Bar in Christchurch opened at midday, and regular William Bouwman was sitting at a table ready to be served just five minutes later.

Having waited eight weeks for his first sip of Guinness from the tap, he was more than happy to wait a few minutes more for the head on his first pint to settle.

He said some of the locals had been getting together via Zoom and having a chat with each other while enjoying a Guinness from the comfort of their own homes, but there was no replacement for being there in the flesh. 

"[It's a] pretty good place to be in and enjoy being with the other customers."

The Bog was putting on live music. Bar manager Kelly Murray said it was great to be back in business after such a long period with no customers and despite the ban on dancing was looking forward to the show.

"The music should create a good atmosphere and a few of the locals are coming back down."

It was a leap into the great unknown in terms of how well people would play by the rules.

"It will be interesting to see if people get up [from their tables] and they're not even allowed to talk to other people and can't even cuddle people....so this will be our test weekend to see what it's going to be like."  

The Fitz Bar tried opening at the start of level two by getting its patrons to have a meal with their drinks.

Owner Dean Baldwin said that only lasted a day.

"A lot of the people that come in here want to play pool or darts, play the pokies, have a bet on the TAB or just have a couple of pints with their mate. So we just found it was too hard, people were reacting to the restrictions and we were getting unhappy punters. So we thought 'we'll close until those restrictions are released'." 

Baldwin was claiming the wage subsidy for all 17 of his staff but had still had to take on extra debt while there had been zero money coming in. 

He was glad to finally be open but said bars should have been able to open at the same time as restaurants and cafes.

"The way they separated a cafe, and a restaurant and a bar was unfair. There was no need for them to do that. I know there are coffee shops down here on Fitzgerald Ave that would have more people in thier premises at lunchtime than the bar would." 

Cabinet is set to decide on Monday whether gathering sizes can increase.