‘Waiting for lockdown’

Businesses are trying to figure out how to stay Covid-19-free, but regulations are creating other public health hazards like queues. The weekend's confusion is a reason a public health academic argues the country needs a national strategy to clamp down collectively before the virus spreads.

After a new set of guidelines rolled out across the country to stop the spread of Covid-19, partygoers shared pens to register names before entering bars and shoppers packed themselves into queues outside supermarkets.

Hospitality NZ spokesman Jeremy Smith said lessons learnt from the industry over the weekend included having a larger supply of pens for people registering to enter and asking people to go home if there was little prospect of them getting into a bar.

The issues didn't just arise at bars. Tightly packed queues of customers formed outside Wellington supermarket Moore Wilson's on Sunday after restrictions on the number of people allowed inside at any one time meant customers formed a tightly-packed queue outside instead.

"If it gets to the point where it's an ongoing issue we're going to have to almost say if your house number's an even number you can go and shop between 8am and 10am," Smith said.

Public health expert Michael Baker said the weekend's events showed the country needed to move into lockdown rather than rely on individuals and businesses to work out the practicalities of preventing the spread of Covid-19 on their own.

"This is why you do need a national strategy. Effectively shut down New Zealand for a period while we get that under control."

Tourism and industry leaders have also argued that businesses just need to be put into "hibernation" with the wages of employees guaranteed by the Government. 

Moves to shut down casinos, bars, leaving only cafes and restaurants open to takeaways were announced by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday. Earlier, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £78bn pledge to support 80 percent of employee wages across the board.

"I think if we go to the next level and bars are either shut down or trading hours are decimated then absolutely we need to look at a wider package,"

There were signs the political conversation was moving in that direction here too.

On Sunday, National's finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith argued the Government should move "boldly" to emulate the UK package and remove the $150,000 cap on the Government's wage subsidy. The cap effectively meant major employers like hotels couldn't apply for enough of a subsidy to cover staffing costs.

The New Zealand Initiative and BusinessNZ also released a joint statement on Monday morning that said the Government's wage subsidy scheme needed to go further.

Smith, who was consulted on the new hospitality guidelines before they were announced on Saturday, said going into "hibernation" too early could cost the Government financially.

"I think if we go to the next level and bars are either shut down or trading hours are decimated then absolutely we need to look at a wider package," Smith said.

"[However] that sort of subsidy or support for the Government is going to put massive financial strain on the Government," he said.

"We'd rather take the view that if it has to happen let's defer it as long as possible. So that when we come out of the crisis we're not sitting with a country with so much debt the next generation is going to be trying to pay for it."

The wakeup call

New regulations announced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Saturday required hospitality businesses to keep a regular headcount and maintain a register of people who went in and out.

Smith said most businesses got word of the changes on Friday afternoon and had started enforcing them that evening. 

Other businesses had been working for weeks on methods to slow the spread of Covid-19.

Manager of Park Hotel Devvrat Kaushal said for him the wakeup call came after the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed at a competitor's hotel.

Stuff reported an Australian man had taken a test for Covid-19 in Australia then travelled to Wellington where he stayed at the QT Hotel. He found out he had tested positive for the virus while sipping coffee at a cafe in Wellington.

“That was a time [when I thought] ‘Oh my gosh’ if that happens in our hotel what do we do?”

"On that day I asked myself the same question: If anyone comes to reception and says 'I've been tested' or 'I've been tested positive', what answer do I have for him? And at that point of time I had no answer," he said.

The 'limited contact' check-in. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

He does now. Kaushal said Park Hotel management had to come up with new measures on the fly. 

"It's not something like 'Yeah it happened in 1990 and this is what everybody did'. There's no template for this situation at all," Kaushal said.

They have erected screens to reduce the chance of staff contracting the virus through spit.

To combat the risk of a Covid-19 case, the reception area is also sanitised every half an hour with disinfectant. 

Customers who sign forms at a separated check-in desk have to take their pen with them.

At check-out, customers drop their keys into a box where it is sanitised, then given to the next customer.

And if you arrive early and want to leave your bag behind the counter, a gloved attendant comes out from behind the desk to get it from you.

Kaushal said it now took up to eight minutes to check a guest in, up from three-four minutes before Covid-19 precautions were taken.  

"[I spoke to a guest on Thursday] they said it's really good that you're doing it ... at least you guys are taking precautions and at least you guys are doing something about it rather than just waiting for someone to infect everyone," Kaushal said.

Some of the measures were costly and the hotel had rolled them out despite a sharp downturn in business, he said.

"You have to go for more than a common sense approach, you have to go to every length to take care of your staff," Kaushal said.

"I personally say that we all are at really high risk. Not only inside the building but wherever you go at the moment," he said.

"Even if you go to a supermarket it's high-risk. Most of the time people would go and pick up a pack of meat and go 'Oh that's not good', then pick up another one. It's just going to spread."

Time for a 'clear instruction' approaching

Wellington City Councillor Dianne Calvert has led a working group of industry representatives looking into the state of the capital's business sector in light of Covid-19.

She said hospitality businesses were concerned about their cashflow and the safety of their staff. Calvert said we were approaching the time for instructions from the Government on what the path forward for these businesses would be.

"I think it's coming to the time [for a] clear instruction which may well be 'close these establishments down' for the time-being," she said.

Hospitality NZ's Smith said the country was close to seeing large hospitality groups folding up or declaring bankruptcy if a new bailout or wage subsidy scheme wasn't considered.

Many hospitality businesses hadn't qualified for a meaningful share of the package because they were all incorporated under a larger holding company, he said.

Smith said that made them unable to qualify for the large wage subsidies they otherwise would have been eligible for had each individual restaurant, bar, or cafe been incorporated separately. 

"A group with say 10 businesses under one holding company is capped at $150,000 where their claim on staff subsidies should be more like $1.5 million," Smith said.

Kaushal said more wage support was needed for people who were now at the "front line" of Covid-19 and for people in jobs like cleaning, which were now high-risk.

"These policies around health and safety change every day and a lot of them are quite ambiguous," Kaushal said.

"In New Zealand these people are your front-line staff, they're your heroes. They have a part to play in not letting it spread."

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