Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Portaloos on the footpath – Auckland hospitality headaches due to alert-level rules

Confusing Covid-19 risk management rules are causing headaches in the hospitality sector as struggling business owners plead with the Government for certainty.

Over recent weeks, Auckland bars and restaurants wanting to operate both indoor and outdoor dining have been told they need processes to reduce intermingling between “defined spaces”, including having separate toilet facilities for both sets of customers.

For some, that would mean setting up portaloos on the footpath near their outdoor dining areas to prevent them sharing a toilet with an indoor guest.

All the while, public toilets – accessible to all and policed by no one – were opened again as the city moved to step 2 of alert level 3 on Wednesday.

The guidance – which is enforced by police – appears to be outdated as it applies to alert level 2, a setting to which Auckland is incredibly unlikely to return to.

And according to a Christchurch hospitality group which operated under the same rules for a time, the restrictions threw up equity and safety concerns, were impossible to police and were sometimes ignored by owners frustrated by the lack of common sense.

Following recent Government announcements, it’s understood that guidance will no longer be used when vaccination certificates become the norm in hospitality.

However, it’s left Mission Bay Cafe owner Alahi Eco lost for words and unsure how to prepare ahead of reopening.

“It is really confusing,” the 32-year-old said.

“Who wants to sit next to the toilet and eat their food, it’s not practical.”

Auckland councillor Desley Simpson is equally bemused how one rule could apply to public toilets and another to hospitality.

“At a time where hospitality is desperate to get up and get moving, this is just another piece of bureaucratic red tape that will mean for some cafes and restaurants, it is just not possible to open.”

Simpson, along with Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, have penned a formal letter to central Government, requesting urgent changes to the rules before hospitality is able to trade again.

A spokesman for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which formulates the advice, said the defined spaces rule had been removed from the level 2 health order, but he was unsure why it was still being communicated.

The NZ Herald has made a number of enquiries about the advice which was reportedly designed for Delta level, in an effort to reduce the odds of virus transmission, while still allowing businesses to utilise their outdoor spaces.

Used during this lockdown for areas in level 2, the advice was being relayed – seemingly mistakenly – to Auckland businesses preparing for a return to trading.

However, Auckland remains very unlikely to transition to level 2, following Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s confidence on Monday that the City of Sails would enter the new Covid-19 Protection framework – the traffic light system – from the start of December.

Regardless, the rules were often impossible to implement according to The Oxford Group general manager Janelle Pritchard, who oversees multiple hospitality venues in Christchurch.

Before the rule was scrapped along with capacity caps, Pritchard said some businesses had to convert their disabled toilets for outdoor diners, creating equity issues.

In some cases, urinals had to be covered with glad wrap as limited facilities meant toilets became unisex – something which Pritchard considered a potential health and safety issue.

“At the time, we couldn’t fathom the reasoning for it and it was very hard to implement it.”

In other instances, outdoor diners had to walk inside to access cordoned off toilets – defeating the point of the rule.

Auckland Council has effectively become the man in the middle, empathetic to business owners’ confusion but unable to do anything about it.

Another rule businesses were grappling with were social distancing requirements for outdoor dining, and needed council approval to extend their dining areas.

Council licence and regulatory compliance general manager James Hassall said there had been 32 inquiries from businesses requesting an expansion of their outdoor area, which also included queries about separate toilet facilities.

However, this had also created another issue for businesses which serve alcohol to outdoor customers, as it required them to go through the arduous process of varying their alcohol licence.

This pain point, along with the toilet issue, were the main features of Simpson and Goff’s letter to Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, Minister of Justice Kris Faafoi and director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

The pair are advocating for immediate changes to the relevant health order and the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act to ensure hospitality owners encounter no roadblocks when they eventually reopen.

In the meantime, Eco – who only took over the cafe a month ago – just wants some clarity ahead of what will be a lifesaving summer season for many businesses.

“It’s absolutely unnecessary, it doesn’t make sense sometimes what is going on here.”

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