17 Dec 2021

Claustrophic housing puts Queenstown hospitality sector at risk of Covid-19 outbreak

9:25 pm on 17 December 2021

There are fears Queenstown's hurting hospitality sector may be brought to a screeching halt if a Covid case occurs among workers.

Central Queenstown.

Central Queenstown. Photo: 123rf.com

The resort's hospitality sector is unique in its tight-knit nature with many workers across the sector sharing in downtime and housing.

The opening of the Auckland border and the return of visitors from the super-city to the south has been seen as a godsend for Queenstown's struggling businesses.

But it has also brought home the reality of Covid in the community.

Fergburger Group general manager Stephen Bradley said there are fears in the hospitality sector that just a few cases could cause the shutdown of entire businesses.

"The young people from around the world live together and two or three businesses could be closed by one case. They're all jabbed but we know the effects of Delta and the latest variant Omicron, that can just get through vaccinated people. So there's some real concerns about the proximity of our people and their living arrangements that we won't be able to function."

The high cost of accommodation in the town meant its claustrophobic housing arrangements might come back to bite.

"It's not only a room each - there's room sharing because of well-documented accommodation costs living in Queenstown over recent years so it really makes the situation compound on itself," Bradley said.

Hospitality New Zealand Central Otago branch president Carl Amos said the pandemic had also meant fewer staff had to pick up the slack across multiple businesses and locations - further compounding the risk.

"The workforce depletion in Queenstown has added to existing workforce members working across these businesses in multiple locations, venues and times. So it will potentially be a challenge if we do get one, two or three cases," he said.

An outbreak in Queenstown's hospitality workforce might have ramifications for the wider region.

"You've got housing options here which have seven to ten people in a share house, so one person going in you can just see the number of close contacts building by the tens of persons. And they also work far and wide, so you've got people who live in Queenstown and work in Cromwell or work in Wānaka - so it's not just Queenstown, but the wider region as well," Amos said.

Queenstown Lakes District was 95 percent plus fully vaccinated, with many businesses who did not necessarily need to operate under vaccine passes opting into the model.

But it appeared that was not only the first line of defence against an incursion of Covid into the workforce, it was the only show in town.

Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult said businesses needed to be planning now how they would manage the self-isolation requirements of staff.

That was a conversation that needed to take place between businesses representatives and the Southern DHB, he said.

However, the council had helped mitigate the risk by ensuring the Southern DHB had appropriate supported isolation and quarantine facilities for visitors to the resort.

That had come about after the Mayor raised concerns about a lack of facilities in the town.

"The DHB have put in place extra testing facilities, I'm satisfied they've fixed that.

"They've now secured isolation facilities and, in addition, they've secured the ability to provide transport out of town if we do simply run out of room," Boult said.

Southern DHB medical officer of health Michael Butchard said public health measures - such as mask-wearing, vaccination, use of vaccine passes and staying home if sick - were the best way for workplaces to protect themselves from getting cases among their workers.

The DHB and Public Health South had been preparing for an outbreak for months.

"We have had about nine bubbles across the Southern district region and we've had those in place for months. There are negotiations underway currently to secure more accommodation and what we have secured now is over and above what the Ministry of Health guidance has been for our region," he said.

If needed supported isolation and quarantine facilities could be used by locals, if their home situation was not appropriate for self-isolation and being fully vaccinated also reduced the burden on case contacts, he said.

Queenstown Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ruth Stokes said businesses had done all they could to prepare for Covid's arrival in the community, she just hoped that would stave off the virus while businesses enjoyed a prosperous summer.

"It's not going to be a case of we open the door and Aucklanders arrive and there's Covid here tomorrow. There is a window, and we're just hopeful with everything that everyone has in place that whilst it's inevitable we are going to have Covid in our community, I'm confident that our businesses are going to do the best they can. But inevitably there will be some toll taken when we have a number of cases in our workforce."

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