'It's a kick in the guts': Melbourne venues scramble to adjust reopening plans after vaccine rule change

Hofbrauhaus Melbourne owner Philipp Hockenberger says the vaccine rule change is a kick in the guts.
Hofbrauhaus Melbourne owner Philipp Hockenberger says the vaccine rule change is a kick in the guts. Photo: Jason South

Many Melbourne restaurants, cafes and pubs are scrambling to adjust reopening plans in light of Premier Daniel Andrews' confirmation on Tuesday that the rules around worker vaccination had changed.

"We had our timeline, we'd taken bookings, done our ordering, we had the whole build-up and then we were just completely deflated," says Romina Gavriel, whose Collingwood cafe Jour opened for the first time in August, one day before the current lockdown.

Until Sunday's roadmap rejig, hospitality workers were required to have one dose to reopen, with a second dose mandated by November 26. The government information page on vaccination requirements for workers still lists those rules.

The Premier made it clear at Tuesday's media conference that the plan had shifted with three days until reopening. "I don't think that anyone would find fault with the logic that says if I must be double dosed to sit down and order a beer or a glass of wine then the person who serves me needs to be double-dosed as well," he said.

Two staff members at Jour have only had one dose of the vaccine. "One has a pre-existing medical condition and had to go on a waitlist for Pfizer; our head barista was a bit hesitant and he waited," she says. "We can't open without them."

"We were going to reopen, try to have some normality, but we can't now."

Jour will continue takeaway for two more weeks. "It's been super frustrating to not have clarity," says Gavriel. "We want to do the right thing and keep ourselves, our staff and our patrons all safe. We even called the government information line yesterday afternoon and we were still told we could open with one dose."

When Philipp Hockenberger heard the rules had changed his first concern was for single-dosed casual staff at the Hof Group beer houses he manages in Chinatown and Docklands. "I worried that the international students who really need money and were looking forward to shifts would try to get their second dose too soon against medical advice," he says. "I told them not to. They were super disappointed they couldn't come back to work."

Hockenberger's dining rooms booked out within minutes of reservations opening on Sunday but by Tuesday he realised that without a full staff, he would need to make changes.

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At Lunch With Dave O'Neil, comedian, at the Hofbrauhaus. 17 August 2016. The Age Spectrum. Photo: Eddie Jim.

Hassle at the Hoff: The Hofbrauhaus in Chinatown will still open but with changes made to relieve pressure. Photo: Eddie Jim

"We called some customers to ask if they could come a bit earlier or a bit later to reduce pressure," he says. "You have to clean and sanitise tables and chairs, you can't just turn them over."

He's not opposed to the new rule, but the timing of the announcement hurts. "It is a kick in the guts, a real rollercoaster," he says. "You can argue that it's right to do it this way but the message being communicated for almost four weeks is that the staff only need one jab."

In Elwood, Figo chef Andrea Pagani is still waiting for further clarification. "The Premier said 'you don't want to be served' by someone not fully vaccinated – does that mean kitchen staff too?" he asks. It's not that he doesn't want to comply but he does crave clarity.

"We love following rules," says Pagani. "I have a one-year-old child and two beautiful in-laws in their late 70s. We want to do the right thing. And we were. Everyone is single-dosed and booked for their second, arranged nicely according to the timeline."

The vaccine rule update has dampened the excitement of reopening at Elwood pizzeria Figo.

Elwood pizzeria Figo is changing its reopening plans. Photo: Supplied

The vaccine rule update has dampened the excitement of reopening. "We've done our ordering, rostering, taken bookings and people have paid a deposit," he says. "It's hard for us when you say one thing in a press conference when your document says the opposite. It puts our opening at risk."

With Melburnians allowed to travel to the Mornington Peninsula for the first time since early August, Pippa McPherson was gearing up for a busy weekend at Pippa's Cafe in Rye. She is fully vaccinated but her husband isn't due for his second Moderna shot until November 5.

"It's just us, we don't have any staff," she says. "We were going to reopen, try to have some normality, but we can't now." The changes are stressful. "Last night we were up until 4am because we couldn't sleep," says McPherson. "Everything changes every five minutes and there's different information coming from everywhere. It's hard."

At Collingwood's Jour, Gavriel is trying to take a longer view. "I've been cooking for 15 years and I've never been more proud to be part of this industry than in the last 18 months," she says. "Yes, it's frustrating but you have to remind yourself of the resilience and the support we've seen. If we can celebrate all of that, it makes this easier to process. We will get there."