Coronavirus: How alert level 2 rules are causing mass confusion for businesses, pricing many out of reopening

Restaurants and retailers are complaining of a lack of clarity from the Government after reopening at alert level 2 brought widespread confusion and a few nasty surprises.

About 700 businesses have been dobbed in for breaches in the last four days - although a "large number" of these were for things the Kiwis reporting them didn't realise were completely legal, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster revealed on Monday.

Business associations say the confusion for customers and businesses speaks to a lack of consistent information and last-minute tweaks to the rules, which are now having major unforseen impacts.

Restaurants priced out of reopening by 'extremely restrictive' rules

On the face of it, the Prime Minister's mandate for alert level 2 was simple.

Hospitality businesses just had to follow the three Ss - each patron would need to be seated, they'd be separate from one another, and each table would have just a single server.

But these rules - as well as a change to contact-tracing requirements the night before shifting to level 2 - have put the sector under such financial and logistical strain that many can't afford to reopen, according to the Restaurant Association.

A recent survey conducted found most of the Restaurant Association's members feel that additional rules and last-minute changes are creating added complexity to what is already a difficult situation.

"We're at the coalface trying to help members who are just looking for clear and consistent information," says Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois.

"The industry is committed to doing its part to make sure we keep this virus under control, but we cannot do this with constant rule changes.

"Whilst we have been consulted we are not responsible for making final decisions around rules - and unfortunately, we've found that the guidelines we've discussed and agreed come back looking quite different."

It's a sad state of affairs for some cafes and restaurants, who should have been celebrating the chance to open up to the public again after nearly two months without table service.

Instead, many have been priced out of reopening because rules have simultaneously caused an increase in staff numbers with fewer tables to serve. An earlier survey found that the crisis would cause as many as one in five restaurants to go bust.

Bidois says most of the angst towards the Government from hospitality businesses comes from two "extremely restrictive" rule changes:

  1. A Public Health Order implemented on Wednesday evening - the night before moving to level 2 - that appears to suggest counter service is not allowed unless for a takeaway order.
  2. The 'single server' regulation, which was previously just "where possible", but is now a requirement.

"This [latter] rule is particularly challenging, given the changeover of staff between shifts, rest breaks and serving larger groups," Bidois said.

"Feedback from our businesses has shown that these two rule changes are proving extremely restrictive. Many cafes are just not set up for full seated table service and this is restricting their revenues."

Bidois says the rules around contract tracing - which too was subject to a last-minute change - and physical-distancing requirements have not been made clear.

"This is confusing for both businesses and diners, many of whom have expectations of our businesses that in some cases are not correct. Again, we seek further clarification on this."

Confusion for retailers too as Kiwis dob them in

Retail NZ was more coy in its response to the Government's last-minute rule changes, simply saying they are "clearer now than they were early last week".

"The key piece of information that everyone needs to know is that there's no requirement for retailers to be contact tracing," chief executive Greg Harford told Newshub.

However, it's clear this "key information" is not widely known, given 700 Kiwis have reported businesses to the police for level 2 breaches in the last four days - including "a large number" for having no contact tracing system.

On Monday, Commissioner Coster reminded Kiwis that this was not a requirement if retailers were able to maintain a two-metre distancing protocol.

A recent survey of Retail NZ members shows that around 58 percent of stores will be collecting contact information for customers.

"The big issue with contact tracing is that there's been a lack of clarity and some contradictory information coming out of different parts of Government at different times," Harford told RNZ.

"I think where the Government landed last week - finally, late on Wednesday night - was that contact tracing was not required in retail but the retailers are required to maintain two-metre distance between their customers."

Harford told Newshub social distancing proved challenging for retailers at times over the weekend, and urged customers to remember to maintain the two-metre distance.

"I haven't heard of any real issues... but a few have had customers be a bit close to each other. There's not any agro there, but it is good for customers to remember that distancing rule," he said.

Coster says a large portion of complaints to police about businesses during the first few days at alert level 2 were related to their flouting of social distancing requirements, but said these are now "settling down".