Coronavirus: Restaurant owners confused over enforcing vaccine certificates, concerned about confrontations with unvaccinated

Restaurant owners are confused over how their staff are expected to enforce vaccine certificates and avoid confrontations with patrons angry if they're barred entry.

On Wednesday, vaccination passes became available for fully vaccinated Kiwis to download ahead of the country's move into the traffic light system. Cabinet will meet on November 29 to confirm a date for that transition, but it's expected very shortly afterwards.

The new framework puts a major emphasis on the use of the certificates. For example, for restaurants and bars to allow patrons into their venues at higher levels, they'll need to be using the passes, otherwise they'll have to stick to contactless takeaways. 

But how does that look in reality? That's the question from Mike Egan, Restaurant Association national president, who told The AM Show he's not sure how hospitality businesses will deal with unvaccinated customers who may get angry if they're denied entry. He said it may become a "farce" if people try to "game the system". 

"We're not quite sure exactly what the enforcement process is meant to be," he said.

"The police, they won't have time. There will be some belligerent people, but we've got to look at the good nature of people and Wellington, over 90 percent will be double vaxxed, so when you have those sort of numbers, really it's just going to be the outliers that may be trying to game the system. Most of most people are pretty happy to be part of the system just so we can get our restaurants open."

Matt Mclaughlin, the owner of the Hoff Hospitality Group, told The AM Show he doesn't want to see younger staff forced into a confrontation with someone needing to be turned away as they aren't vaccinated.

"Our staff and our patrons are key to our businesses," he said. "We don't want to put them in any situations that they feel uncomfortable. We're going to need to work with them."

"This is part of the logistics of how this is going to roll out and how it's going to work. Is the onus on us as business owners? Is the onus on the individual? We really want to keep our customers and especially as our staff safe. So we've got a bit of work to do there."

Egan said it's not as easy as just designating one staff member to keep an eye on who is coming and going and checking their vaccination status.

"Places that have three entrances, and cafes that have an outside area where people just sort of wander in and sit at a table or on some benches in summer. We're going to have to build sort of fences and we're not quite sure exactly to what level we'll have to do all this.

"We just want more information and we need it fast and we need it now."

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood told The AM Show the Government is expecting high compliance from Kiwis with the rules - including in Auckland where the vast majority of people are vaccinated - and said Worksafe will be able to help support businesses.

"We have given them additional resourcing so that they have the ability to work with business owners to give good advice and support, to answer questions, to support them to set up systems, but then also, where it is required, to be able to provide some enforcement.

Michael Wood.
Michael Wood. Photo credit: Newshub.

"Our experience with these kinds of things is people do want to comply, people do want to keep their staff and customers safe and that is a required part of the new framework."

Mclaughlin, appearing on The AM Show after Wood, said instead of relying on Worksafe to come and speak to businesses, he would like to see the Government work closer with owners to see what works for them. 

"I would like the Minister to come in and talk to us and and perhaps we can help them, explain how our businesses work, and see if we can't come up with a plan to make it work rather than sort of having the finger waved at us and being told what we have to do.

"I think we've had enough of that. It's great that they are coming to the industry for our feedback, but listen to us, we're the business owners, we know how our business is run. I'd love for them to listen to us."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins were asked on Wednesday about how businesses will be supported to enforce the new rules. 

Hipkins said it won't be a new situation for many hospitality venues. 

"A lot of hospitality businesses are not unfamiliar with this, so they have to do checks at the moment around age, for example, and so they have systems in place to do that," the minister said.

"We will be extending the vaccine certificate requirement to businesses that aren't as accustomed to doing that, though, so, cafes and so on."

He said police are available to provide support with enforcement. 

"They've been involved in this process and the discussions around this process, so they know what's coming, and they will certainly be there. The infringement regime that I think will pass its way through Parliament this week, all things going according to plan, provides us with some additional tools there, as well."

Hipkins said it won't be a new situation for many hospitality venues.
Hipkins said it won't be a new situation for many hospitality venues. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Ardern said there is already a requirement for people to scan in at locations which applies more broadly then what the vaccination certificate requirement will. 

"We have thought carefully about where the vaccine certificate is applied. Ticketed events, for instance, they've already thought about how to integrate their process into ticketing. 

"We haven't applied a requirement for retail, because we've taken into account the idea of, for instance, a sole operator trying to check a vaccine certificate and serve customers being very difficult, and it's a lower-risk environment. 

"We have thought carefully about its application. You are using it in businesses and places where people spend longer, where they're more likely to have reservations or contact with people right upfront to enable a more seamless process."

She said with more than 91 percent of Kiwis having had their first dose and 82 percent being fully vaccinated, people have showed they are willing to comply with the rules. Other countries have also introduced similar schemes so the Government will "look to some of their experience".

"We will be, and are, working up sector by sector guidance to support the implementation of this requirement, and through its implementation we will keep in touch with representative groups such as hospitality, to see if there are other things we can do to support those who are enforcing this in any way, to deal with potential issues they may face."