Postcode checks and two-hour sittings: the pub challenges of showing the grand final

"Clearly, 70 people are not enough to sustain a 600-person venue." says Victorian publican James Sinclair.
"Clearly, 70 people are not enough to sustain a 600-person venue." says Victorian publican James Sinclair. Photo: Eddie Jim

The grand final and pubs go together like pie and sauce, unless it's 2020. 

In regional Victoria, publicans are hoping for a further easing of restrictions to nudge them closer to positive cashflow in time for the big game. In Melbourne, however, many operators are resigned to remaining closed a little longer.

James Sinclair owns 17 pubs in metropolitan Melbourne, plus Sporting Globe venues in Geelong and Ballarat. 

Hannah Richards, publican of the Golden Age Motel in Omeo, East Gippland. With grandfather Bob Richards.
Hannah Richards, publican of the Golden Age Motel in Omeo, East Gippland. With grandfather Bob Richards. Photo: Supplied

His regional businesses are able to hold more than 600 people normally, but the current COVID-19 capacity is just 10 patrons in each of two indoor spaces plus 50 outdoors. 

"Clearly, 70 people are not enough to sustain a 600-person venue," he says. "But we'll give our staff any hours we can." 

He's restricting customers to two-hour bookings which means for Saturday's Geelong game, they had a slot from 7.30pm for 7.40pm first bounce. 

Hotel Lincoln publican Iain Ling doesn't believe he could make a grand final service work with a week's notice.
Hotel Lincoln publican Iain Ling doesn't believe he could make a grand final service work with a week's notice. Photo: Simon Schluter

"It's very challenging," says Sinclair. "It's a hot ticket to watch the Cats play, so the people who are with us are grateful. They know how lucky they are." 

Sinclair's concern is that those who can't grab a seat in a regulated environment, or who are turfed out after their two-hour booking expires, will socialise anyway. 

"Is an 18-year-old going to go home to bed at 10pm or are they going to catch up at someone's home?" he says. "Venues can manage sanitation, social distancing and responsible service of alcohol in a way that house parties may not."

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His Richmond pub has a capacity of 550. As soon as he's given the go-ahead to open, even if it's just for 10 people, Sinclair will do it. "We are desperate to get any trade happening," he says. 

"We are hanging onto staff and losing a fortune as it is. We have visa holders we are trying to support because we need them to operate our business, and we have part-time staff whose JobKeeper has been halved. 

"They are all desperate for work. We'll do whatever it takes to get the lights on."

In little Omeo, east of Mount Hotham, Golden Age publican Hannah Richards has been quite busy since she was allowed to open. 

"We've been lucky with regional travellers," she says. The grand final is feeling like a bit of a pain, though. "It's usually a good, fun day but this year is different". 

Compliance is a burden, with Richards employing a staff member just to check postcodes and ensure diners are not from metro Melbourne, or risk a $10,000 fine. A nighttime grand final makes things tricky too. 

"I have people booked for dinner in the restaurant," she says. "But, I don't know that they want the footy on while they eat." 

Richards has a beer garden, but alpine temperatures can drop to eight degrees by 4pm. "I'm tossing up putting a projector outside but that's weather dependent," she says. "It's all up in the air at the moment."

In Carlton, Lincoln Hotel publican Iain Ling doesn't believe he could make a grand final service work with a week's notice, even if he was allowed to open. 

"With all the good will in the world, it's very hard to open a venue for 10 people or even 20," he says. 

His Carlton street corner isn't a conducive place to watch sport anyway. "We can't hire TVs for outdoors. We don't have the infrastructure for it. We would have to run wires on the footpath and there's Melbourne's weather to think about."

The uncertainty is the worst aspect, says Ling.

There are a million questions we don't know the answers to so I can't plan, I can't brief my staff and I can't buy stock. And I want to know about the next stage, when the quotas expand again." 

"The bank wants projections and a forecast. Are you joking? I know we're only days and weeks away but everyone is very disheartened, cautious and fatigued."