The restaurant reopening that Melbourne is craving has been thrown into chaos by contradictory and confusing messaging from the Victorian government. The confusion lies in the vaccination requirements for hospitality workers: do they need one dose or two to be able to go to work?
The current legal directions require workers to have one dose by Friday, October 22, the day Melbourne restaurants are able to open their doors to 20 patrons inside and 50 outside. Those same directions, which expire on Thursday, October 21, also state that hospitality workers must have their second dose by November 26. This is the timeline that restaurants, pubs and cafe owners and workers have been planning for and working towards.
When Premier Daniel Andrews announced the revised roadmap on Sunday, there were some small but important changes relating to worker vaccination. "Indoor settings like restaurants and cafes will be able to reopen with up to 20 people indoors with density limits, and only if all attendees – including workers – are fully vaccinated," he said. The requirement that workers be fully vaccinated was backed up by the roadmap released that night.
"Melbourne is supposed to be reopening but what this actually means is that we have to close," says Francesco Rota, owner of Trattoria Emilia in the city. The restaurant has 15 staff, half of whom are single-dosed and on track to be fully vaccinated by the November 26 deadline. "We are scared and confused," he says. "We are thinking that all of a sudden the business that got us through lockdown will have to shut."
Hospitality businesses have sought urgent clarification from industry bodies and government helplines. If workers are required to be double-dosed, there will not be enough cooks and waiters to give Melbourne diners the beers, brisket and bulgogi they've been craving.
"We have an ongoing staff shortage so finding people to replace them is not possible," says Ingrid Langtry, owner of pizza restaurant Ladro in Prahran and Fitzroy. "Some of our staff who have had Astra-Zeneca have to wait longer for second doses."
On Tuesday morning, the Australian Hotels Association received a letter from a spokesperson for the Victorian Department of Justice and Community Safety saying Sunday's roadmap was wrong.
"I can confirm that at this stage the fully vaccinated requirement only applies to patrons, despite the fact that the Roadmap refers to fully vaccinated staff and patrons by 22 October," the letter reads. "As you know, staff have until 26 November to become fully vaccinated and can work from Friday as long as they have received their first COVID-19 vaccine dose."
The AHA swiftly disseminated this advice to its members, covering hundreds of pubs and thousands of workers.
However, another government source then said the Department of Health was unaware of this letter and the Department of Justice had made a mistake. Indeed, the premier doubled down on the double-dose requirement in Tuesday's media conference.
"The number of patrons that are allowed in the easing that we have done is predicated on people being double dose vaccinated and 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.
"So it is just very important that we try to be as consistent as possible and I apologise if there has been any confusion."
Meantime, restaurateurs calling the government business information hotline are still being advised of the old timeline.
Hospitality operators – already stretched and scrambling – are now also frustrated and confused.
"Knee-jerk decisions from the government create stress in an already burdened environment," says Langtry.
"We can't pivot that quickly. It's not a matter of just opening a door. We need to get systems, services and processes aligned, there's so much compliance to get through. We are desperate to open and get back to a semblance of reasonable revenue but we can only open according to government guidelines. If we had a timeline between now and Christmas that was adhered to it would be easier."
As it stands, Ladro plans to open outdoors only this Friday. "That's all we can staff fully vaxxed," says Langtry. "We want everyone – our customers and staff – to have a positive experience."