Pubs could reopen their doors in July with strict operating rules being developed by a powerful secret taskforce that will be presented to the national cabinet.
The VIC state government-appointed working group, including Crown Casino, major pokies and pub owners and community clubs, has met over recent weeks to chart a road back for the industry, which has been crippled by the lockdown.
The taskforce, convened in March by the Department of Justice, is close to finalising a set of virus-proofing measures that could mean pubs operate more like cafes, with table service instead of self-service at the bar. Live venue mosh pits could be scrapped, dining room capacity could be slashed, and every second poker machine could be switched off.
Marlene Kairouz, state Minister for Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation, addressed the group, led by Crown’s former gaming chief, on Thursday. The minister indicated venues might be permitted to open by late July at the earliest, according to three people familiar with the call.
The parties involved in the industry group include Crown Resorts; gaming giant Tabcorp; Woolworths’ pokies arm ALH; the Australian Hotels Association; Community Clubs Victoria and the RSL.
On Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the national cabinet would review all restrictions on May 8. He declined to confirm whether restrictions on licensed venues would be wound back, and instead urged the public to download the COVIDSafe app to hasten the path towards lifting lockdown restrictions.
It is expected pubs and clubs will be given about a month to prepare to reopen once the national cabinet decides to ease restrictions on hospitality venues.
The taskforce, which has met in previous years and has been revived to assess the financial impact of the pandemic, meets weekly and is aiming to finalise its recommendations in the next fortnight. The recommendations will be handed to the state government, which will present the document to the national cabinet when it deliberates on relaxing restrictions.
Neil Spencer, Crown’s former head of gaming and an industry veteran, was hired by the Andrews government to head the taskforce.
Members of the taskforce insist they are not pressuring the government to lift restrictions quickly but are supportive of government health measures to avoid outbreaks and secondary shutdowns.
Ms Kairouz briefed the taskforce on Thursday and said it was extremely unlikely venues could reopen in June and the more likely date was late July or beyond, according to three people familiar with the minister’s briefing. Ms Kairouz said Crown – which has stood down 11,500 workers, 95 per cent of its staff – was an example of the lockdown’s effect on workers in the hospitality sector.
Pubs and gaming venues have been crippled by the shutdown of the economy, with many closing entirely rather than serving takeaway. Community sporting clubs – many of which rely on patrons buying food and drink and hiring rooms – are buckling under financial distress.
A source in the gaming industry said the group believed it was likely an indoor limit of one person for every four square metres and a one to 1.5-metre distance between people would be in place. These rules were enforced for the three days before the national cabinet agreed on a stricter lockdown on March 22.
Measures to virus-proof venues could include testing people’s temperature at entrances and spit guards separating patrons and staff at bars. Practices that encourage groups to gather in communal areas are unlikely to be allowed, including children’s playgrounds and mosh pits for live music.
Under one plan being considered, public bar areas will be turned into quasi-dining rooms with patrons sitting at tables being served rather than standing at counters.
In dining areas there could be half the number of tables and limits on the number of people who can eat together. Condiment, cutlery and water stations would be removed.
There are plans to turn off every second gaming machine and remove excess stools and tables to avoid loitering, while shared coin buckets could be scrapped.
One staff member could be assigned to monitoring physical distancing at all times, and staff would probably be encouraged to complete an infection control course offered by the federal Health Department.
Crown faces serious issues in making its venues safe because much of its business relies on shared gaming tables that have groups of people present using shared chips and cash.
Crown did not comment on the taskforce but said it was developing policies to ensure patron safety once it reopens.
Australian Hotels Association chief executive Paddy O’Sullivan said his organisation would “be working with the Victorian government for any future reduction in restrictions of people movement, particularly around hospitality venues”.
A spokeswoman for the Victorian government said: “Our priority is the safety and wellbeing of Victorians as we work to slow the spread of coronavirus. We will follow the advice of the Chief Health Officer to determine when it is appropriate and safe for licensed venues and casinos to reopen.”
This article first appeared in The AGE – 1 May 2020.
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