On Friday 8 May, Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed the roadmap Australia would follow out of COVID-19 restrictions.

Under the National Cabinet’s plan, restaurants and cafes would be able to reopen for dine-in service, so long as they adhere to social distancing measures, including one person per 4 square meters.

However, the decision as to when and to what degree the hospitality industry will ‘reopen’ ultimately lies with the state and territory leaders. And they’ve opted to relax conditions with considerable caution.

While Western Australia will allow 20 patrons for dine in at a time and the Northern Territory has eschewed a cap on diners in favour of a two-hour limit, most other jurisdictions will restrict dine-in service to just 10 people at a time. The Australian Capital Territory and Victoria likely won’t see venues reopened for table service until June.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews explained the logic behind his government’s decision, saying hospitality operators had communicated that a limit of 10 dine-in customers would not be viable financially.

Restaurant & Catering Australia CEO Wes Lambert said the announcement came as a surprise. “We had hoped to get at least 10 in Victoria, which would have allowed thousands of smaller cafes, coffee shops and restaurants to welcome patrons in again,” Mr Lambert said. “We do understand the comments around business viability, but this applies mainly to larger venues.”

For the 75 percent of venues that have remained open for takeaway and delivery and the 30 percent of the industry that turns over less than $5,000 a week, it’s win, says Mr Lambert, adding: “We do understand that larger venues and fine dining venues may wait until late step two, or even step three to reopen their businesses, when it’s more financially viable.”

When it comes to the individual choices of states, the association is pushing for further relaxations. Part of operating under the ‘new normal’ is accepting nothing is set in stone. On a positive note for the industry, that does mean there is room to move.

“Step two is very flexible,” says Mr Lambert. “Certain states have indicated a willingness to increase the step two numbers well above 20. In fact, in Queensland they’re considering 50.”

Operators respond to roadmaps

It’s early days, but reactions from operators are mixed. Frank Dilernia of Sydney group Tapavino, which has four venues in the CBD, will remain closed for now. A lack of diners passing through the city during the shutdown, meant takeaway wasn’t a viable option, so the businesses have been closed since 24 March.

“We’re looking to open in between the 20 people rule and the 100 people rule, so hopefully mid or late June,” says Dilernia. “We just can’t operate under the 10 people rule. [That] gives us enough time to get our head around all the COVID safety requirements and hygiene practices. I don’t think we’ll be able to just go for it… there will be procedures in place that we need to follow.”

The venues won’t go down the path of using plastic cutlery and tableware, but Dilernia will introduce other measures. “We have to work out what’s the best way to do 20 people,” he says. “We could do two sittings, maybe one night we could do a degustation menu. We’ll have to work out how many people can sit on one table… it’s workable. We’ll probably bring in a takeaway menu.”

It’s not just government regulation that needs to be taken into account. Diner sentiment is worth considering too. Long term, Dilernia’s main concern is turning over enough tables. It’s no use having a cap of 20 diners if only 10 turn up. “That’s the worst case scenario; you want to be able to get 20 people in and turn it over two or three times.”

Arthur in Surry Hills has reached out to their customers via newsletter to gauge interest before resuming dine-in trade.

The Surry Hills restaurant will be able to host 10 diners at a time, and are looking at running one seating on Friday and Saturday evenings if there is enough demand. Along with the waitlist, they have also opened up reservations from 1 July in anticipation for further relaxations.

“As you all know by now, it’s a bit of adapting, seeing what works and what doesn’t and moving forward,” reads the newsletter. “We’re in unchartered territory but want to ensure we bring the full Arthur experience back to life.”

Sam Terrey, owner of Small Talk Coffee & Snacks in Sydney’s Dulwich Hill, has had success switching to takeaway only and will continue with the model for now.

“It’s been working well for us and I’m finding it more efficient,” Terrey explains. “There’s an element of not knowing if we’ll have to revert back to takeaway only in a few months. I guess there’s still strong potential for a second wave globally.”

In the Hunter Valley, Yellow Billy restaurant are holding off for now and will wait until stage two measures are announced. “We’re waiting to see what the serving restrictions are going to be and if they’ll be profitable for us,” says chef Sam Alexander.

“Overall, we are remaining optimistic and hopeful to be operating soon.”

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