Alert level two-compliant dining at Amano in Auckland's Britomart on the night of Sunday, May 17 (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

‘Constant rule changes’ make for a tough start to alert level two for hospitality

Restaurants, cafes and bars have been allowed to reopen, with a whole lot of ever-evolving caveats. We check in on how the first few days have been.

Inconsistent messaging and last-minute rule changes made the first weekend of alert level two “incredibly challenging” for hospitality businesses, says the Restaurant Association.

The organisation worked with the government on the guidelines but was not responsible for final decisions and “unfortunately, we’ve found that the guidelines we’ve discussed and agreed come back looking quite different”, said Restaurant Association CEO Marisa Bidois via a press release.

“Our association has spent a significant amount of time writing guidelines for the industry to give each type of business time to understand its compliance responsibilities and make the necessary operational changes,” she said. “However, last-minute changes to rules without sufficient notification have made the first weekend incredibly challenging for our businesses.

“The industry is committed to doing its part to make sure we keep this virus under control but we cannot do this with constant rule changes.”

These concerns come in the wake of multiple changes made to the rules since the phased shift to alert level two, beginning on Thursday, May 14, was announced on the Monday prior. First, there was an amendment of the original announcement that bars would have to wait until May 21, this Thursday, to trade again, with the revision that bars and pubs will be allowed to open as long as patrons are seated and “on the premises to dine”, not just drink – Anzac Day-style rules. A spokesperson later clarified to BusinessDesk that a “bowl of chips” could count as a meal, which normally wouldn’t under those Anzac Day rules.

On Friday, the second day of level two, the Restaurant Association issued a release saying, “While there is no definition of what constitutes ‘to dine’, it is considered that the food should be something more than snack food. So if you have a group of three we would expect that each person would have a plate of food in front of them.” Bars will still have to adhere to the three golden rules of hospitality (seated, separated and single server) and the 100-person capacity limit once this Thursday rolls around. Some opened on the first day of level two, only to close again because they couldn’t comply with all the requirements.

The reopening of The Spinoff’s local was short-lived

For cafes particularly, the rules around counter service have become another source of confusion. Initially, the government required all eateries, including cafes, to provide table service – that is, you wouldn’t be able to order at the counter. This was then amended: you could order at the counter, as long as you stayed a metre away from staff. But today’s release from the Restaurant Association says the public health order that came into force the night before we went into level two appeared to indicate counter service was allowed only for takeaway orders. “This is something that we seeking clarification on,” said Bidois.

The single server rule – that each table must be looked after by the same server the entire meal, including running meals and clearing – has also flip-flopped. On Friday, the Restaurant Association put out a release saying it had had official confirmation that this was “where possible”, rather than mandatory. In today’s release, however, the association said this had since become mandated. “This rule is particularly challenging, given the changeover of staff between shifts, rest breaks and serving larger groups,” said Bidois. “The additional costs required to lay on more staff is increasing wage bills and with fewer tables to serve, for many it’s making the cost of reopening too high.

“Feedback from our businesses has shown that these two rule changes are proving extremely restrictive. Many cafes are just not set up for full seated table service and this is restricting their revenues.”

For particularly large restaurants – those that seat 300 people – the single server rule is also proving a headache. Think about yum cha, which requires multiple servers to circle the room and deposit food at your table. At Grand Harbour in Auckland, capacity has been slashed by two-thirds, drastically impacting on turnover and revenue. The dining room looks “pretty empty”, Grand Harbour owner Stephen Chan told The Spinoff. The restaurant reopened today, having spent the last few days on renovations and working out new systems. A limited yum cha menu will be available, with diners having to tick which items they’d like on a paper pad rather than point at a trolley. Chan hopes customers will be patient with them as, unlike the trolley system, chefs will have to steam and make items as orders come in.

Daily Bread cafe and bakery in Point Chevalier, Auckland, welcoming customers back on Saturday, May 16 (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The Spinoff’s first forays into the world of level two dining found three areas businesses seemed to be struggling with:

The first: social distancing. All tables are required to be set one metre apart. This means a metre from back of chair to back of chair when someone is sitting on it – not just a metre between the physical tables. So, yes, your backs should not be a hair away from touching. Is it a faux pas to crack out the tape measure? 

The second: contact tracing. Initially, it appeared to be mandatory for hospitality businesses to keep a record of who was coming into their premises, even for takeaway or pick-up – that’s full name, address, phone number and email. But according to the Restaurant Association, there has been another last-minute rule change: “It appears that restaurants do not have to collect details of takeaway customers and a variation in the distancing of rules for takeaway has also not been made clear. This is confusing for both businesses and diners, many of whom have expectations of our businesses that in some cases are not correct. Again, we seek further clarification on this.”

Another source of confusion is where the line between hospitality business and retail outlet is blurred – retail stores are not required to keep contact tracing records for customers, and  Work Safe NZ cites “takeaway food stores” as an example of this. This likely means places like bakeries, or sushi shops, but many of them may choose to request your details anyway. There are a lot of ways to do this – through an app, or just via good old pen and paper. If the business you’re dining at doesn’t have this in place – and we’ve already been to several that don’t – it’s good practice to raise it with staff, because, you know, “team of five million” and all.

The third: self-serve cabinet food. Usually you’d rock up for sushi or at a bakery and slide that glass cabinet open, but this isn’t allowed under alert level two. Yes, it’ll slow the line down, but, technically, you are required to tell staff what you’d like and they’ll pack it up for you. Fewer people touching stuff, obviously. Another aside: all cabinet food should be separated by an object, like glass, not just left out to air freely. 

The enforcement of both social distancing rules and contact tracing is largely up to the businesses themselves, and it’s hard to say how restaurants will deal with drunk diners sloppily leaning over to commiserate with a table beside them (is this something you’d police?), or how a minimum-wage worker will coax a paranoid latte-drinker to leave their details at the till if they refuse to do so. The rules are vast – Restaurant Association’s guide for restaurants is 58 pages long – but necessary, both for stopping the spread of Covid-19 and creating a safe working environment for hospitality staff. But there’s no real protocol for dealing with businesses that do break the rules: should you just not eat there, report them via the Covid-19 breach form, or confront them directly? The Restaurant Association recommends customers raise it with the establishment first. “These rules are new to everyone, and we have a collective responsibility to ensure that we’re sticking to the rules.” 

But despite the weekend seeing 983 reports of alert level two breaches, 700 of those relating to businesses, only 30 were upheld, with 29 warnings and one prosecution, police commissioner Andrew Coster said at today’s media briefing. It’s not clear how many of these related to businesses, hospitality or otherwise, but this indicates the industry is doing pretty well at following the rules.

A quiet Friday evening on Dominion Road in Auckland, pre-lockdown (Photo: Alice Neville)

Another area of concern is the lack of resources for non-English-language speakers from any official authority. With such a vast amount of new rules and regulations, it’s worrying that restaurants owned by new immigrants might not have clear access to them in the first place. This issue has been raised by the Restaurant Association, which has requested the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment provide non-English translations. 

Chinese restaurants were the among the first in hospitality to be affected by the pandemic, even before New Zealand recorded a single case. Sadly, it looks like they’re also set to be the last to recover, as cautious Chinese communities play it safe by waiting to dine out again. Owner of Chinese restaurant Mr Hao on Auckland’s Dominion Rd, Paul Wong, who also owns restaurants in China, says he had only two customers on the first night of alert level two: his mum and dad. It could just be first-night jitters (the restaurant is getting bookings through for the weekend), but Wong says culture plays a big role. 

“Chinese people are going to wait at least one or two weeks; I saw a similar thing happen in Shanghai. After the lockdown ended, it took about two weeks to a month for people to trust [enough to dine out].” Apart from his own restaurant, Wong noticed that most restaurants down Dominion Road (which boasts a large amount of Chinese restaurants) were facing a similar situation, especially restaurants that cater primarily to the immigrant Chinese communities. Meanwhile, Grand Harbour’s Chan is most concerned about the lack of tourists, as they made up 30% of their business pre-Covid, as well as when workers will return to their offices, as their restaurant is located in the city centre. “The city’s been completely dead,” Chan says. 

So how does it look over in one of Auckland’s hippest dining precincts, Karangahape Rd? Carlo Buenaventura, the manager of Lebanese eatery Gemmayze St, says the first night of service went well – better than he was expecting. People were excited to be out, which smoothed over any potential awkwardness that came with increased hygiene protocols and spaced-out tables. The restaurant’s biggest challenge has been with the single server “rule”, through which the entire kitchen-to-table process has had to be revised, with a bigger emphasis on communication. Junior runners (staff members who solely run food from the kitchen) have been forced to step up, looking after tables themselves. 

The restaurant had received a fair amount of bookings for that night and the week ahead, and while walk-in tables are available, bookings are encouraged to avoid queues or clusters of waiting groups. Karangahape Rd as a whole was busy on Thursday night, and getting busier (some restaurants were even full), but Buenaventura is worried about the quieter winter season ahead. They’ve already lost two of their biggest months, April and May, which included the end of the financial season and university graduation. “Rent doesn’t change with the season,” he points out.

Despite the initial excitement of being able to dine out, it’s certainly a slow starter for most restaurants – including the one The Spinoff ate at on Thursday night. “It’s not been too busy,” a server told us, in an empty dining room. It’s been strange being back on the floor after so much time doing nothing, but good. She was hoping that the weekend just gone would bring in the socially distanced crowds, and we hope so too – for all restaurants.

Click here to find full guidelines for diners and, for further information from the government on alert level two restrictions, visit covid19.govt.nz/alert-system/alert-level-2




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