Last-minute backflip gives pubs hope for recovery
AHH! The serenity.
From midday today, for the first time in seven weeks, 10 people at a time will be able to enjoy their lunch while taking in the waterfront ambience at Yamba Shores Tavern.
Hospitality establishments across NSW can now offer dine-in options to patrons thanks to the latest lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. But it almost wasn't to be for pubs, clubs and hotels.
Many venues had already gone above and beyond to put in place strict social distancing measures in anticipation of lockdowns, only for the whole industry to be given less than 24 hours to shut all doors completely on March 23, forcing thousands of employees across the state onto dole queues at Centrelink.
From yesterday the NSW Government has allowed hospitality venues to host 10 patrons on their premises for dining while continuing to maintain a physical distance of at least 1.5 metres from others.
However, two days before the easing of restrictions Premier Gladys Berejiklian clarified that it only applied to cafes and restaurants and that pubs would not be included.
"When our medical experts are asked why restaurants and cafes open and not pubs their response is that it's easier to maintain social distancing in a seated restaurant or cafe situation, whereas in a pub if people are mingling and what have you it's a bit more difficult," Ms Berejiklian told Channel 7's Sunrise.
Matt Muir from Yamba Shores Tavern was busy preparing his workplace and staff on Wednesday when the news delivered a rude shock.
"We assumed we would be treated no different to a restaurant or cafe on the basis we've all got to play by the rules, and logic would prevail that hotels, pubs and clubs could open under the same rules," Mr Muir said.
"From our point of view, we have a large area of outdoor and indoor dining areas and to provide 10 seats would only require 3 per cent of our capacity, so it's actually really easy to do.
"Pubs and clubs are probably more suited to serve 10 people because most pubs and cubs are much larger than most restuarnants and cafes.
"When they put the cobwash on that, I was bitterly disappointed."
Fortunately, stakeholders such as the Australian Hoteliers Association stepped in at the eleventh hour and "common sense prevailed".
"Our issue is, why is it that you can have 10 people crammed into a cafe for breakfast, but those same 10 people can't go to a fairly spacious hotel for lunch? It makes no sense," AHA NSW director of liquor and policing John Green said.
On Wednesday night the premier heeded pleas and delivered a lifeline to pubs and clubs, putting them in line with cafes and restaurants. Bars and poker machines remain closed.
"This is a common sense decision - a step forward for pubs especially in regional areas," Mr Green said
"They're the heart of the community. They have been with their community through fires, floods, drought, and coronavirus. They're the community hub, that's where people go for a meal."
"We are one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country with large venues and the capacity to socially distance. We have put the health of patrons and staff first since this pandemic started and will continue to do so."
Mr Muir said he was relieved by the decision, and from last night the tavern now offers sit-down dinners seven days a week and lunch on Saturdays and Sundays.
"It has been righted, which is good," he said.
"I'm pleased to see logic has prevailed and pubs and clubs can now have 10 customers to dine in at the venue.
"But a lot more thought has to go into these things as we move forward. You walk into big supermarkets and while there might be some signs around, there's no 1.5 metre social distancing, and I don't see this being policed.
"Some businesses flaunt the rules while pubs and clubs are being put to task over these sorts of things.
"I'm not a health expert, but I do know how to run a hospitality business and control patron numbers. I'm very experienced at that."
While he acknowledged this is a huge step in the recovery process for the industry, Mr Muir said he was not about to "earn a holiday" by serving 10 people.
"I've got a sports bar with indoor dining attached, three enormous outdoor areas and also a stand-alone restaurant," he said. "We could accommodate 10 people and the 1.5m distancing in all of those areas. But we've got to play by the rules, and it's 10 people in the one venue.
"What we've done to ensure compliance is we've got a wide bench overlooking the water, as it just so happens that 10 stools at 1.5 metres take up the whole of that space.
"I'm not going to get rich serving 10 customers, it's a drop in the ocean. We're more set up to serve 1000. But it's more of a chance for our customer base to start to reconnect with us.
"We had the door slammed in our face on 23rd of March. Our business closed within 12 hours notice and shortly afterwards our staff were on the dole queue. Our business was turned upside down and absolutely ripped apart.
"We had JobKeeper, I see this as CustomerKeeper.
"People don't want to go home or sit in the car to eat a meal. They just want to get out and about. They're happy to sit by themselves, and in our case look out over the Clarence River, and start to enjoy some of the joys that life offers."
Mr Muir was wary of the possibility of a rush of people looking to take advantage for the lifted restrictions, and urged people to book ahead to avoid being disappointed.
"There will be a honeymoon period, there's no doubt about that," he said.
"If people turn up and seats are available then go for it. But if they're not available, you have to treat it strictly as a takeaway and exit the premises.
"The last thing we want to see is people breaking the rules and the hospitality industry having to take another step back.
"We're also doing staggered bookings and limiting the time a patron can occupy a seat.
"This is very much a suck it and see. No one has been down this road before.
"We have our roadmap on this process, and we'll make mistakes. No one's map will be perfect, and there'll be customer requests that we won't be able to deliver straight away. But I think with some customer understanding, we'll be working through it together.
"Over time we'll fine tune things and built a better business model that's more in tune with handling the situation as it is, and as it changes as restrictions are gradually lifted, and the end game is back to normal trading.