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Celebrated chef Neil Perry stood next to a kitchen bench wearing a terracotta apron with the world Margaret on the front
Photograph: Supplied/Liz Keene

'I wouldn't have a problem calling the police': hospo venues prepare to cop antivaxxer backlash

Hospitality heavyweights like Neil Perry are bracing themselves for a backlash to NSW's vaccine mandate

Maxim Boon
Written by
Maxim Boon
Elizabeth McDonald

When NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian announced on September 27 that a slew of businesses, including most hospitality venues, would be allowed to reopen to fully vaccinated punters from October 11, it seemed obvious cause for celebration, particularly for employers that have struggled to pivot, retain staff, and remain solvent after more than 12 bruising weeks under lockdown. But with just a fortnight to prepare for this grand renaissance for the local economy, ambiguities and loopholes in the state’s reopening strategy have left many in the hospitality industry with unanswered questions.

From October 11, only fully vaccinated patrons will be permitted to enter hospitality venues for seated service. To enforce this rule, the state has been developing a vaccination passport, which will incorporate the proof of vaccination into the venue check-in process that has already been in place for more than a year in NSW. However, the timeline for delivering this vital piece of infrastructure has fallen concerningly out of step with the ‘roadmap to freedom’. Customer services minister Victor Dominello, who is overseeing the delivery of the state’s vaccine passports, has said that trials for the untried technology will not commence until October 6 and are unlikely to conclude until October 20, leaving a gap of at least nine days during which business owners will need to verify their customer’s vaccination status without access to a credible or secure means to do so.

Margaret, the much-anticipated new digs of celebrated chef Neil Perry in Double Bay, had been due to open the day before Greater Sydney was put into lockdown on June 26. While stay-at-home orders were in effect, Perry made the surprising pivot to slinging gourmet burgers, but now Margaret is readying to welcome its first diners for seated service when restrictions lift. Perry has been outspoken with his support of the vaccine passport, and while this has led to some online trolling and even some hate mail, his stance on those who are unable to produce proof of vaccination is clear: “They really can't be in the restaurant.”

Another kick in the guts for an already beaten industry

But how exactly venues will be empowered to bar unvaccinated punters is still murky. Charlie Lehmann, co-owner of Ramblin’ Rascal and Double Deuce Lounge in the Sydney CBD, expressed his frustrations at the passport’s bungled delivery. “Once again the Liberal Party, the supposed party of small business and fiscal responsibility, has dumped the nannying duties into the hands of operators who have been flogged by on-again-off-again lockdowns with paltry assistance.” Lehmann is also concerned about how punters who refuse to offer proof of vaccination will respond if challenged: “The fact that we have to be the forward-facing part of the community that cops abuse from individuals who do not understand basic public health is another kick in the guts for an already beaten industry.”

Both Dominello and Berejiklian have said that, during the period between the state reopening and the rollout of the vaccine passport, the immunisation certificate generated via MyGov and Medicare will be sufficient proof of vaccination status, but these documents are not secure and, according to cybersecurity experts interviewed by Time Out, surprisingly easy to counterfeit. Berejiklian has been frustratingly vague and occasionally dismissive about what support might be in place for the businesses that will be policing their future punters, saying that the process of proving vaccination will be as simple as scanning a QR code.

However, even this now-ubiquitous process isn’t accessible for everyone. “One of my biggest concerns is how guests will prove their vaccination status and its legitimacy, particularly for people that have difficulties with technology,” says Ben Hickey, part of the team preparing to launch pop-up eatery About Time in the CBD on October 20. “We've seen first-hand that some guests have a hard time with the services NSW app, and the vaccination proof is more complex. I am personally having issues linking my Medicare account, an issue which, despite talking to support several times, is not yet resolved.”

There's little support or systems in place to allow us to do this in an efficient and effective way

Like Lehmann, Hickey says there’s a conspicuous absence of guidance from authorities. “There's a lack of clarification on how this will be monitored by police and government, and whether assistance will be provided if we are required to refuse entry. We’re the ones having to implement and police the government requirements, but there's little support or systems in place to allow us to do this in an efficient and effective way.”

For Neil Perry, this relatively brief period of NSW’s staggered reopening, between October and December, will be worth the growing pains. “I just want us all to get to the other side. I keep telling everyone that ‘Freedom Day’ isn’t October 11, ‘Freedom Day’ is December 2 [the day after NSW lifts lockdown for unvaccinated people]. Then we can all get together, but right now, we’re going through a step-by-step reopening of the economy so we don’t end up in trouble like a lot of other places around the world.”

Perry concedes that not everyone will see the situation the same way, although he’s prepared for challenging diners, saying: “I wouldn't have a problem calling the police if people were taking the piss.” But ultimately he believes many of these early reopening dramas will be short lived. “The unvaccinated? There won't be a hell of a lot of them – Australians are incredibly compliant, so there’s this whole conversation around something that I just don't think is going to happen. We've got about 86 per cent of the population first vaccinated, so you would think that they would have a second dose, by the time we get to October 11. We're going to have probably 90 per cent of the population vaccinated, and I wouldn't be surprised if we got up to 95 per cent in Sydney.”

The unvaccinated? There won't be a hell of a lot of them – Australians are incredibly compliant

While many restaurateurs and bar owners may be putting their faith in the police to enforce the emergency health orders, the reality may be something very different. Despite assurances by NSW health minister Brad Hazzard that harsh punishments and blistering fines will be issued to unvaccinated rule breakers, NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller has said officers will not be walking through venues to check if people were fully vaccinated when the state starts reopening on October 11 and the police will only respond when requested.

Adrian Sanchez of Jacoby’s in Newtown believes hospo staff want to do the right thing, but lapses are inevitable: “Ultimately we will follow the health advice and do everything we can to look after our staff and guests, but policing it is another matter - people will slip through the cracks, have fake certificates and the like.”

On-the-spot infringement notices as high as $10,000 could be issued to both punters and venues flagrantly ignoring the rules, but one reassurance that has been given to the industry is that penalties will not be issued to venues that unwittingly serve unvaccinated patrons. “That’s very important as that protects the restaurateurs and so forth from people who are being idiots and lying about their status,” Neil Perry notes. “But I hope that doesn't allow the restaurateurs or the hairdresser or whatever business it might be to just go on serving unvaccinated people because they don't want to make the hard decision. Because there is no hard decision. You're breaking the rules if you go to these places without being vaccinated.”

Here are all the details of how NSW will be exiting lockdown for good by December 1.

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