‘It’s just smoke and mirrors’: Premier’s latest announcement sounded like a boost for regional hospitality venues, but that’s not the case

‘It’s just smoke and mirrors’: Premier’s latest announcement sounded like a boost for regional hospitality venues, but that’s not the case

Sunday's announcement was extremely misleading to the Regional Victorian hospitality industry.

When Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews revealed the easing of restrictions in Victoria on Sunday, restaurants and pubs rejoiced at the news they desperately needed to survive, with the limits of people in hospitality venues increased.

Andrews revealed venues were allowed to open for up to 40 diners indoors and 70 diners outdoors from Monday.

Wonderful news, right?

To the general public, this simply meant more opportunities had been given to book a seat at their favourite venues, some of which have been booked out weeks in advance.

Sadly, that’s not the case.

For venues with multiple rooms like pubs, the change will mean a bigger grand final weekend no doubt. But the ‘10 person per space rule’ means the increased capacity will have little to no effect for restaurants, cafes and bars that have a single dining room, which is, unfortunately, all that a lot of our local businesses have.

Corrine Chalmers owns Skinny Dippers café in Newtown and feels the Premier’s announcement was deceiving for a lot of hospitality venues, with restrictions not relaxed nearly enough.

“For us, even though we have a large area, nothing has changed. We could easily fit 40 people in our venue, but we can only have 10 people sitting in,” she says.

“They [the Victorian government] are making the public think they’re doing something for hospitality, but they’ve done nothing. We’re just sitting exactly where we were two weeks ago.”

Corrine is just one of many business owners around the region who went into work on Sunday afternoon excited for what this news meant, preparing their café for an increase in patrons. It wasn’t until the DHHS website was updated hours later with the fine print, stipulating the requirements for these capacity increases.

‘The limits of people in restaurants and cafes increases. You can have up to 70 people outdoors and up to 10 people per indoor space with a maximum of 40 people per venue indoors,’ the website reads.

‘The two- and four-square metre rules apply. Indoor spaces must be separated by permanent structures (should reach floor to ceiling or be at least 2.1 metres high) or be a discrete area of the premises.’

While venues could increase their inside limits to 40, it only applies to venues with these permanent structures already in place to separate groups – and for small cafes already struggling, that’s just a slap in the face.

“It’s all smoke and mirrors. He [Daniel Andrews] alluded to no more than 40 inside and 70 outside, so when you hear that you think it’s pretty straightforward to follow. If he had of added that there are some restrictions to how the 40 are spaced, then we all would have waited to tell our customers,” she says.

“It’s just getting to a point where a lot of places aren’t opening because they can’t function on those restrictions. Even if you’re allowed 10 seated inside, it is provided you’ve got four square metres to allow it. Some places are small and won’t be able to even fit 10 because they’ve got to be safe. These are the types of things that are confusing people; they see venues limits and think it’s great. It’s a very frustrating situation.”

Many venues are also unable to take advantage of the increase to outdoor spaces, battling the same issue with space limitations alongside a particularly cold and wet time in Victoria, restricting businesses even more.

It seems a poor and disappointing decision for the hospitality industry. For businesses to benefit from this change, they would need to put up a temporary wall just to service more customers – and even then, the restrictions could change again in two weeks.

When you look to places like Western Australia (who are currently perceived as the most economically free and open in the country), their removal of strict limitations such as the former four-square-metre capacity rule has allowed life to get much closer to normal, permitting hospitality venues around the state to spring back to life.

Why isn’t regional Victoria allowed to do the same?

The restrictions that have plagued the business since March has forced the business to either adapt or face the consequences… and with nationwide restrictions still in place now six months later, it’s proven imperative that small businesses changed the way they operate.

Since opening back in 2017, the Skinny Dippers café has become a unique cafe with wholefoods in the heart, specialising in paleo, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian and all things healthy. Like many others around the region, the café has completely changed their business model to survive.

Removing their usual lunch menu, the café has introduced a ‘grab and go’ offering of slow-cooked meats, vegetable dishes and salads, amplifying their focus on fresh and gluten-free takeaway options in a time where dine-in is strictly limited.

Alongside the new menu, the café has also opted for the use of disposable crockery to further save costs, further finding creative ways to survive over the last few months. And while locals continue to support the venue, it’s a tumultuous time for small business owners, been heavily restricted for the most of the year and with no end in sight.

“It’s financially draining, it’s emotionally draining, and it’s physically draining,” Corrine adds, “Enough is enough. Open us up properly.”

While regional Victoria is currently battling these restrictions, businesses in metro Melbourne and the Mornington Peninsula won’t be able to open until November 2 for 20 diners indoors and 50 outdoors, although this may be advanced should the numbers hold at their low level.

You can view the changes from Sunday’s announcement here.