As venues in New South Wales will be able to host one person per every two square metres in outdoor spaces from tomorrow, publicans react to the news and discuss what other measures would improve trade for their businesses.

On Tuesday, the Berejiklian Government announced that venues could host more people in their outdoor areas, moving to a 2sqm rule. In order to take advantage of the increased capacity, venues must record the details of all guests via electronic means like QR codes.

The 4sqm rule remains in place for indoor spaces.

AHA NSW’s director of liquor and policing, John Green, characterised the change as a “small step forward” that would only benefit venues with large beer gardens, and called out the inconsistencies in policy that allows for 40,000 people to attend a football match, and yet pubs are still capped at 300 people who cannot stand and drink, or book for groups larger than 10.

Australian Hotelier reached out to a number of operators about the relaxation of the rule outdoors, and while the majority of publicans were happy for the increased capacity outdoors, the general consensus was that there were more pertinent measures that would help keep their businesses in the black as JobKeeper support is lessened.

Stephen Hunt of Hunt Hospitality is appreciative of the change, viewing it as a good move for the long-term.

“We are delighted with the changes – we appreciate that the Government is being cautious with increasing capacities with the aim of keeping the community safe. We are supportive of sensible increases in capacity as ‘playing the long game’ is so important.”

Where Hunt would like to see changes is in the number of people allowed in a group booking, and for standing to be allowed. Paul Waterson, CEO of Australian Venue Co, agrees with this assessment.

“We’re really happy about the news of one person per two square metres in outdoor areas.  It’s perfect timing for us to double our capacity in beer gardens as the summer weather starts to kick in.

“We are hoping to see more restrictions relax as we head towards the busy festive season.  It would be great to see customers able to stand and enjoy a casual drink in our venues again, as well as greater capacity indoors. It would make a big difference to the overall experience in large entertainment-led spaces such as Cargo and Bungalow8.  Our teams are skilled and experienced at ensuring this is managed in accordance with social distancing rules,” stated Waterson.

Chris Traill, director of The Lady Hampshire in inner Sydney, agrees that the larger issue that needs addressing is the rule that does not allow patrons to stand while consuming food or beverage.

“If I could start by saying that this is definitely a move in the right direction for pubs, as any legislative changes in the current NSW Government Public Health Order that increase capacity of venues (to allow additional patrons & the resultant increase in turnover) is a positive move.

“That being said, in light of the fact that all patrons are required to be seated whilst consuming beverages, for my venue, there will effectively be no change in operating capacity, as the 1.5 metre ruling for seating still remains in effect,” explained Traill.

Capacity and cost

While the 2sqm rule will indeed boost trade for venues with large outdoor spaces – particularly in the city – the majority of suburban and regional pubs that do not have large outdoor spaces will not see any real change to their trade with this latest relaxation.

For large-format landlocked pubs, what would be more helpful is an increase in the overall maximum capacity of 300 people, as suggested by Jason Marlow of Marlow Hotel Group. His venues are generally large-format suburban pubs, which are already hitting the maximum capacity with plenty of space left over. With 300 people in venue, one of his pubs is currently operating at one person per 8.8 sqm. For pubs with a larger footprint, an increase in indoor capacity would be a much more viable option, while still retaining social distancing.

“We’re still hitting capacity numbers regularly, and that keeps those venues at up to 8.8 sqm per person. So I’d like to see an increase in the overall capacity and allow larger format venues us to go to 4sqm. It makes a lot of sense to me to go to 4 sqm inside and 2 sqm outside. So I’d like to see the capacity increased if you have the floor space to accommodate it.”

Even for larger inner-city venues, the 2sqm rule will not make as much change as some media outlets are espousing. Here too, an increase in capacity would make a much lager difference.

“The change in capacity is a step in the right direction, but in reality it will only make a small difference to our venues when we have the other capacity restrictions remaining. With the 300 person capacity, 1.5m distancing between tables, no customers standing and the group size limit of 10 remaining, it means the uplift is minimal,” suggested Justine Baker, CEO of Solotel.

“Opera Bar for example, with all of its outdoor space, will have no increased capacity as the overall capacity limit of 300 people remains. At Public House Petersham, which also has substantial outdoor space, we will only be able to welcome an additional 18 people as the 1.5m distance between groups and maximum group size of 10 remains in place.

While any relaxation of restrictions is appreciated by pub operators, Nick Tindall of Laundy Hotels argues what would greatly benefit operators is some form of relief in relation to the cost of complying with these restrictions.

“One of our major concerns is the cost of COVID compliance. Like many retail businesses, the majority of NSW pubs no longer have access to Jobseeker as the September quarter trade was not sufficiently depressed to qualify. However the cost of COVID compliance continues,” states Tindall.

“For the average pub I would estimate the cost of compliance to be between $4000-$8000 per week. The Government should look to provide relief in this area in order to maintain the highest standards of COVID practices.”

Image: (Public House Petersham/Facebook – pre-COVID)

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