Confusion is the flavour of the month for Melbourne’s hospitality industry

As Melbourne hospitality venues ready themselves to open on October 22, confusion over government requirements has left many scrambling to comply with changing rules. 

When premier Dan Andrews announced Victoria’s roadmap out of lockdown at the end of September, he said hospitality workers would have to have at least one dose of a vaccine to be able to open when the state reached 70 per cent vaccination, and that staff would have to be fully vaccinated by November 26. However, on October 17 Andrews announced an amended rule: that hospitality staff would have to be fully vaccinated in order for venues to reopen. But with government helplines and websites not updated to reflect these changes, hospitality workers were left with incorrect advice.

“I apologise if there’s been any confusion, but our position has been very clear,” the premier said in a press conference on the morning of October 19. “You need to be double dosed, that’s the advice that I have. I’ve talked to lots of people in this industry in the last couple of weeks, and they’ve all understood.” But with just three days left until reopening, many venue owners and staff have made it clear they have not understood. 

For venues like Carlton’s Japanese eatery Ima Project Café, it isn’t the blow to reopening plans that is the most frustrating, it’s the unclear messaging. “We’ve dealt with the stress of the initial reopening date and lost staff then had to hire new staff without trialling them. We were all set to reopen on October 26, but then we had customers coming in to the café, telling us we could reopen earlier. We were so confused,” says Asako Miura, who co-owns the venue. “We were sticking to the original plan that everyone would need to have a single dose by October 22, but now suddenly that has changed. It’s fine if that is the case, but we just want to know what’s going on so we can announce this to our customers.”

As venues book out for dine-in and customers seek out spots to head to this weekend, places that continue to offer takeaway will almost certainly do less trade than they have been doing during lockdown. This comes as a blow to those that prepared to reopen but are now unable to do so.

Sudden announcements of lockdowns and major changes that affect the hospitality industry aren’t a new thing, with the government historically announcing lockdowns just before weekends – the biggest days to generate revenue for venues and those that lead to the biggest loss of stock as a result. This time, the short turnaround time has left business owners with inadequate time to hire and train staff. 

The hospitality industry was one of the hardest hit by lockdowns and the absence of JobKeeper, with workers losing employment and venues losing their staff. There’s now a massive shortage of workers as the industry scrambles to find its feet and reopen.

“We want to get our team back to as many hours as possible with welfare cuts happening this week, which in itself is a juggling act being that capacity is still so reduced and staffing in the kitchen is so hard right now,” says Lily Ngatai-Stokes from Brunswick diner Theodore’s. 

“We will be providing our staff with training this week on all CovidSafe procedures as well as assertive communication, de-escalation techniques and a risk management session so that none of our staff have to be subject to unsafe working conditions. This just sandwiches operators between the public, the government, Fair Work and its staff.”

Staff must also negotiate the possibility of dealing with unvaccinated people who don’t have a medical exemption but try to enter venues illegally. For Ngatai-Stokes who has an inflammatory condition that makes her more susceptible to contracting the virus, it’s personal.

“I know my staff are very anxious about the prospect of turning away the unvaccinated [who don’t carry a medical exemption]. I’ve made our bookings system very clear around the requirements, but I know we will have the odd confrontation, or worse, organised protest type things. But we have to maintain the health and safety of our staff and community no matter what.”

For places like All Things Equal in Balaclava, this statement rings especially true. The café and not-for-profit organisation ​​provides employment opportunities to people with disabilities or special needs and prioritises the safety and wellbeing of staff. “Safety is our priority, and we want everyone to access fair and sustainable income in a genuine workplace,” says operations manager Bianca Stern. “Our challenge might be customers not wanting to show their vaccination status to us, but when we have staff who are immunocompromised or vulnerable that’s a non-negotiable.”

Photograph: Supplied/All Things Equal

“We were planning on opening the café in a few weeks to make it safer, but the shorter timeline has meant we now have much less time to train our staff. No one at our workplace has been trained in conflict resolution, so what do we do if someone says no to providing us with their status? This then becomes a safety issue,” she says. “The challenge for us also lies in working with different abilities who are used to routine and comfort and entering the unknown together. At the end of the day we’re lucky to have the best board and staff, and to love what we do”. 

There are things customers can do to alleviate stress for venue staff as they plan to reopen. “Some customers won’t understand the stress you’re going through, and we get many of our wonderful customers coming into the store or calling us to find out when we are reopening,” says Miura. Venues like Ima Project Café, which is active on social media, will announce their plans to reopen there. It’s important to remember they’re most likely inundated with messages and it’s best to let them find their feet. 

Leave a tip and donate to venues like All Things Equal. Be kind and conscious of your interactions – you’re dealing with another human being at the end of the day.

Have your vaccine certificate loaded on your phone ready to go, and don’t hesitate to show it to staff when they request it. Be conscious that those around you might not be able to be vaccinated, and stay safe for them. Make sure to get tested and stay home if you’re sick. A restaurant would much rather stay safe than deal with a Covid outbreak.

Victorian’s lockdown is set to end at 11.59pm on October 21: here’s what you need to know.

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