23 Aug 2021

Businesses confused by 'grey areas' of new Covid-19 rules

10:56 am on 23 August 2021

Confusion reigns for businesses trying to get to grips with mandatory scanning and record-keeping for "busy places and large gatherings".

The Covid-19 tracing app in action.

Photo: RNZ

The government announced yesterday that mandatory sign-ins were being introduced to ensure the government could contact trace quickly.

Among the list provided by the Health Ministry were obvious super-spreader culprits like casinos and concerts but conspicuous in their absence were large retail outfits which would include Mitre 10, Bunnings, K-Mart and The Warehouse, malls and supermarkets.

The prospect of mandating record-keeping has been on the cards since June, around the time an infected traveller from Sydney came to Wellington and visited a number of eateries and tourist attractions, however miraculously did not infect anyone.

The announcement was due to happen last week, but was delayed due to the current outbreak.

Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope said it was not exactly clear which companies would have to comply.

"I'm sure the officials have worked through the detail but it needs to be more clearly communicated to the businesses that it's going to affect.

"They've said events and hospitality venues and so on, but I think there certainly needs to be more clarity around who's going to be required to report from a mandatory perspective... There are penalties if you fail to comply so if you're a business and you don't know whether you're covered or not, that's not going to be particularly helpful."

Businesses that failed to keep contact tracing records in line with what the government currently had in place under the Covid-19 Response Act, could be fined between $300 to $1000.

BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope

Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope says it's not clear what businesses have to follow the new rules. Photo: RNZ/ Dan Cook

Hope said businesses were already dealing with defiant customers over other government regulations, such as mask wearing, and this could make it worse.

"Businesses have to do this. It's not their choice. So the message is for the public to go easy on people and we've already seen some instances of aggression by people choosing not to wear masks.

"We don't want to see any more of that sort of stuff."

Countdown and Foodstuffs supermarkets were initially both unclear whether the order applied to them, until the government clarified advice later on Sunday evening, which ruled them out.

"A mandatory record keeping requirement for the retail sector was considered, but ultimately we agreed that the compliance burden for small businesses would be too onerous. We do encourage all businesses to promote use of QR codes and record keeping as much as possible," Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said.

He confirmed the requirement would only be for places mask wearing wasn't practical and where people gathered in large numbers.

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford said while this by and large ruled out the entire retail sector, grey areas remained.

"There's certainly a number of businesses where it will be a little bit grey. Those with cafes inside them are a really good example. I think the rules will certainly be applying to the cafe part of that business whereas that may not apply to the store in general."

Customer aggression toward employees had increased over the past 12 to 18 months and it was not fair they should be the ones to enforce sign-ins, he said.

"The enforcement of this should be sitting with the police rather than with the businesses."

Cafe's, bars and restaurants were specifically named as places that have to oblige.

Tony Crosbie runs 14 venues across the South Island and said patrons who refused would simply be turned away, but he did not expect push-back based on last time there was a push on record keeping.

"What I found with the customers is they actually respected it because they knew we were trying to keep them safe. And of course, at the table, we had the sanitising and all the equipment that we needed for them to make them feel safe in the venue as well."

"If it means that we can get our businesses back open, well then I think that's an easy ask."

So long as that was the extent of the compulsory orders, hospitality businesses would be onboard, he said.

"There's whispers around people having to wear masks inside hospitality venues and that'll be an absolute disaster.

"People aren't going to sit around a table with their mates and wear masks. It's just not practical. So we're 100 percent behind the tracing, but absolutely not with a mask... if it's a matter of compulsory masks then leave us locked up."

Customers or people working in customer facing roles at an essential service such as a pharmacy, supermarket or petrol station must wear a face covering.

Likewise, they are legally required on public transport and flights.

Mandatory record keeping would come into effect seven days after an alert level change, to give businesses that were re-opening time to prepare.

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards said it was not clear how the mandatory record keeping would be enforced or how businesses would keep the information secure.

Edwards told Morning Report most of the requests made of New Zealanders have been based on a strong link with the fight against the pandemic.

"With this proposal ... that evidence base is not that clear about the advantages of mandating businesses keeping records over public campaigns promoting that."

It was not clear how the measure would be enforced and there were no details on host venues' responsibility if someone appeared to be scanning in did not not, or wrote down false contact information.

It was also unclear how businesses would keep information in registers secure and ensure it is used only for public health purposes.

"If we see these open registers sitting on counters and bars so you can see everybody else's email and phone number, that's going to put some people off."

There should be a specific statutory limitation on what the information can be used for, he said. For example the contact details should not immediately go into the business's mailing list.

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