21 May 2020

Covid-19: Bars ready to reopen: 'There's a lot of excitement'

9:49 am on 21 May 2020

The glasses are being polished and the beer barrels tapped as New Zealand's pubs and bars prepare to reopen today.


Bars are now allowed to reopen. Photo: 123rf.com

Venues which primarily serve alcohol have had to wait an extra week to open after the move to alert level 2.

This was due to the additional risk they were thought to pose, the government here citing South Korea where a fresh spike in Covid-19 cases was blamed on the reopening of Seoul nightclubs.

Hospitality has been hit hard by the pandemic, and venue owners say that extra week with no customers has been another massive blow.

Sue Whelan from Father Ted's in Auckland is excited but nervous.

"We'll just play it by ear, we really don't know how it's going to be. We saw last weekend when the restaurants opened up they were pretty quiet," she said.

"[And] obviously we can only have 50 seated so we're not expecting massive crowds or anything but we're ready to go. It just depends if anyone turns up."

Whelan wonders whether people will be put off going to bars if they can't wander from their seats or the group of up to 10 they have come with.

It'll be strange for her too - you're not supposed to get your drink delivered to you at an Irish pub.

"It's definitely going to be new for customers but it's totally new for our staff as well. It's table service and it's just not what we're used to, but we'll get used to it. We'll get there."

In Ponsonby, Whiskey Bar owner Khushru Umrigar has managed to stay afloat by transforming his business into a food-focused venue.

But sales are still way, way down.

"[It has been] very difficult. Very, very difficult with no income coming in. Thursday's the big one and we still have to follow the three S's and all the regulations that have been put out," he said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said hospitality businesses must apply the 'three S':

Seating: People must be seated to prevent the spread.

Separation: There must be social distancing between people and tables.

Single server: Each table must have just one person serving it.

"In my personal opinion, it'll be a slow start. We've got a consistent customer base with a lot of regulars who are looking forward to coming back, but they'll have to get used to a different environment of being seated, served and separated.

"Hence we've spent a lot of money putting in booths and separations to achieve that. So for a small business that's had no income, and then to spend more money to meet the three S's has made things complicated for us."

Auckland's Family Bar and Saloon Bar operations manager Grady Elliott told Morning Report there should be a fourth 'S' for smoking, that would allow people to step out and smoke on the footpath.

He said since Covid-19 there had been a switch from FOMO (fear of missing out) to FOGO (fear of going out).

"But there's a lot of excitement about people who are going to come out."

Staff have been briefed to remind people of distancing rules, and patrons will have to sign in at the door.

"No dancing, no snogging," he said.

"Hopefully, after tonight we'll get a better idea of how people react, how many we've had to tell off. We'll be onto it."

'We know the rules'

In Wellington, the council has decided to close Courtenay Place to traffic from 10pm to 4am on Friday and Saturday to give revellers more room to keep their distance.

City councillor Diane Calvert said it was a pragmatic move and people should not think of it as a street party.

"We know Courtenay Place in particular in our city is generally very busy, especially in the later part of the evening and the early hours," she said.

"Not really knowing how it's going to pan out but knowing that we need to enable good social distancing, this is a good opportunity to see, well, what happens when we do close it? Is it good? Is it bad? What can change?"

The council, along with police and the hospitality sector, will review the initiative next week.

Hospitality New Zealand's Wellington branch president Matt McLaughlin, who also owns the Panhead Tory Street and the Danger Danger nightclub, is confident hospitality businesses are ready to open under the new restrictions.

"We've had a long time to process the rules, we know the rules. We've set our businesses up, we've separated the tables, everybody has to be seated and have a single server," he said.

"So yeah, we're really just looking forward to opening the doors and getting into it."

McLaughlin said several hospitality businesses still would not be able to open under the restrictions because their venues just were not suitable.

'We're going to be okay'

In Dunedin, Woof! Bar opened only a week before the level 4 lockdown. Its owner Josh Thomas told First Up they couldn't wait to reopen.

He said it was a shock at first, but they had been able to retain staff.

"The financial stress, the uncertainty of where this was heading ... it was an uncomfortable time," he said.

"That wage subsidy, when I applied for it, it took one minute to apply and two days later the money was in our account and I could email our staff and say 'we're going to be okay'."

He said it helped take the pressure off. "We have taken up the government's loan scheme as well."

There was still uncertainty and even though they did not want to rack up their debts, he said the support from the government had been huge "psychologically and financially".

There is a 100-people limit on public gatherings and Thomas said his bar could manage it.

"We have a lot of seats and they are fairly well separated ... for us, the level 2 guidelines are quite workable."

He said it would be challenging for smaller bars.

To help with contact tracing, he said there would QR codes at all tables, and staff would be "keeping an eye on everyone".

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