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Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller

BusinessFebruary 25, 2022

Will any Auckland restaurants be open this weekend?

Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller

With omicron cases rising rapidly, eateries across Auckland have had to shut up shop due to positive cases and close contacts among staff. Charlotte Muru-Lanning talks to four owners about how they’re coping.

It’s alarming getting a call from an old boss. 

A few months back, I picked up a call from a particularly awful former employer demanding to know where I was – I was apparently late for my shift at the cafe. With my ear to my phone, I faltered for a few beats, before sputtering with far too much uncertainty, “I don’t think I work there any more”. And thankfully, I was right, I don’t work there any more. 

On Monday this week, I got a call from a much nicer ex-boss, from a restaurant I worked at a few years ago. They were desperate for staff. For a moment I considered putting my hand up. I’m not sure if my editors would have been too happy about that. They’ve now closed for the week because the majority of staff have tested positive for Covid-19 or are close contacts of someone who has.

Over the last few days social media has been filled with posts from Auckland restaurants, cafes and bars letting customers know that they’ll be closing temporarily because of positive cases and close contacts among staff. Prego, Homeland, Kiss Kiss, Soul Bar, The Grove, Bar Celeste, Chinoiserie, Lillius, Ebisu, Little Creatures, Kind Stranger, La Fuente, Saint Alice. Closed for the night, for days, for a week, some with no set end point. 

Unlike a lot of countries overseas, we’ve been relatively lucky over the course of the pandemic in this regard. While there have been a few mass spreading events at bars and venues, eateries have, until now, not been hotspots for catching Covid, and people who work in hospitality have not caught the virus en-masse. Cognitively, that makes it even more startling how quickly the situation has ramped up in the space of a few days. If you had a booking at an Auckland restaurant this weekend, it’s highly possible it’ll be cancelled, if it hasn’t been already

Mate Vella is owner and operator of Kind Stranger, a tiny cafe with terracotta walls in the city suburb of Eden Terrace. The doors to his cafe, which opened in June last year, were closed on Wednesday after he found out he was a close contact of someone who had tested positive. “The call was like that of an ex-partner ringing someone up and telling them they had an STI and to go get a test,” he says.

Matt Vella at his Eden Terrace cafe Kind Stranger (Photo: Supplied)

Thankfully, he’s managed to recruit a friend to look after the store while he completes what, under phase two, was set to be seven days of isolation. As of tomorrow, phase three means only household contacts of cases will have to isolate unless they develop symptoms. “I wouldn’t survive the week off being closed so I am in the strange position of getting a new staff member on without the ability to train them,” he says. His temporary replacement has worked in hospitality before, “but [it] still feels very strange not knowing how the days will go”.

Because Vella can’t afford to pay himself a wage usually, he’s not eligible for the leave support scheme put in place by the government to pay the wages of staff who need to isolate for more than four days.

Auckland waterfront restaurant Saint Alice usually opens from lunch until late, every day. On Tuesday they were made aware that a number of their staff had come into contact with Covid-19. Part-owner Callum O’Brien says the restaurant was already running low on staff, so when 25 of their 30 workers became close contacts, household contacts or symptomatic, the business made the decision to close until next Wednesday. “We’ll see most hospo places close this week,” says O’Brien. “It’s really closing in.”

Despite the financial challenges faced by the industry at the moment, which has already seen a downturn in customers as many stay away to avoid the risk of catching the virus, O’Brien is “confident it will bounce back”. The leave subsidy scheme will help with Saint Alice’s current situation – allowing them to pay staff wages while the restaurant stays closed.

Cut to Wednesday night at Bar Celeste, a cosy wine bar and bistro on Karangahape Road. Just five minutes before opening, a staff member received a message that they were a close contact of a positive case. The restaurant couldn’t find a replacement, so closed for the night. 

“We were expecting this to happen,” says part-owner Emma Ogilvie. “It could have happened at any moment.” While they’ve found a replacement for the time being and have been able to reopen after a night shut, “we’re definitely conscious it will happen again and again”.

Emma Ogilvie with her partner and co-owner Nick Landsman at Bar Celeste (Photo: Supplied)

For hospitality, the risk of being part of a chain of transmission is exacerbated by factors unique to the industry: it’s customer facing (and customers are unmasked for most of their visit), staffing levels are already low, making it difficult to create work bubbles, and, from my own experience, a lot of hospitality workers live in flatting situations, oftentimes with others who work in the industry. 

Like O’Brien, Ogilvie is optimistic about the future. While she and her partner and co-owner, Nick Landsman, were worried about how their businesses would survive, the new business support announced this week by the government “has been a huge lifeline, even if it doesn’t cover everything”.

Edmundo Farrera owns La Fuente, a wine and mezcal bar in central Auckland. Even before the uptick in cases this week, he says the situation for his business has been “like walking on a wire”. Last week he had fewer bookings than ever before. To lend their support, a loyal customer made a booking for Tuesday evening this week. But just before service, a kitchen staff member received a text that their flatmate had tested positive and they would have to isolate for seven days. So La Fuente had to close for the night, and the booking, which Farrera was considering something of a lifeline, was cancelled. La Fuente has since reopened, but will be running without its full menu for the time being – instead serving drinks, platters and cheeses.

Edmundo Farrera outside his wine and mezcal bar La Fuente (Photo: Supplied)

Despite the support announced by the government, Farrera is concerned about the next few months and says he’s in “survival mode”. With fewer people working from home and customers less inclined to dine out in general because of the rising case numbers, eateries in the CBD in particular have expressed worries for their businesses and called for support from the public and the government. “I would like to see government or opposition initiatives that come from dialogue with hospitality – we are individuals with individual problems,” Farrera says.

As of midnight last night, New Zealand is now in phase three of the omicron response. Cases and household contacts still have to isolate for 10 days, but any other close contacts will simply have to monitor for symptoms. This will potentially mean fewer disruptions for restaurants, cafes and bars, because fewer staff will be legally required to isolate. On the other hand, it also means there’s a higher likelihood of spread and increasing numbers of staff in the industry becoming unwell. This is especially worrying when you take into account that in hospitality, it’s nearly impossible to work from home and and on top of that, it’s not unusual for staff to have no sick-leave entitlements due to not having reached the six-month threshold for working for an employer or not having guaranteed hours per week.

Vella describes the current situation as “confronting”. From a business perspective, he reckons opening a cafe seven months ago may have been the worst possible time, especially in the commerce-based area in which his is located. The turnover from the business has been slim since the get-go but he’s humbled by the support from the local community. He’d like to see commercial landlords make more effort to support businesses that are struggling – “not all the blame should be put on the government”.

“I think New Zealand has done a pretty good job,” says Vella. “I think that’s probably more important to the country than the success of my business.”

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