COVID-19: Queenstown's hospitality providers calling for government support to survive Omicron surge

Queenstown's hospitality providers are calling for government support to survive the Omicron surge.

Businesses are cutting back hours and closing their doors as large numbers of staff isolate due to close contact requirements.

There are fears that without financial relief, some may not reopen.

Only a week ago, Queenstown was ostensibly Covid-19 free.

Now it is the epicentre of Omicron in the South Island, with dozens of cases detected over the past seven days.

Dozens of tourism and hospitality providers were now also locations of interest with staffing arrangements thrown into disarray.

Restaurateur Fleur Caulton, who owns and operates restaurants across the country, said the situation in Queenstown was particularly difficult.

"We've got 150-odd staff and definitely a quarter, in this first week, have been caught up in some way or another. We're spending all of our time managing communications, talking to people, calming people down, deciding whether they can go to work or not go to work ... it's challenging."

Staff shortages were critical even before Omicron arrived, now they were just compounding, Caulton said.

"We just don't have enough staff to open the hours we should be open. Now with having to stand people down, it's exacerbated it to the point where there are a lot of businesses that are just closed," she said.

There had also been a lack of guidance and clarity in the rules, Caulton said.

In the absence of clear guidance and direction, they were having to act as a de facto public health service for their staff and, unable to get their hands on rapid antigen tests (RATs), it was often unclear whether staff could or should be returning to work.

Queenstown made for a uniquely challenging environment to handle Omicron, as hospitality and tourism made up such a large proportion of its industry compared to other centres and staff in those sectors worked, lived and socialised together - often with employees working across multiple sites.

The impact of Omicron was already obvious today with many businesses along the Queenstown Mall shut for lunch service.

Hospitality New Zealand Central Otago branch president Carl Amos said there were not enough staff available to place different teams into bubbles.

Workers living situations and the fact many worked several jobs made it almost impossible.

Fergburger Group general manager Stephen Bradley said as a result of Queenstown's tight-knit hospitality sector, just a few cases had already caused massive headaches.

"Obviously a good night out for someone, no surprise, has taken down half the town. Unfortunately, some groups have been disproportionately affected, but the majority of town has now been affected," he said.

None of his outlets had yet been identified as locations of interest, but despite that about 20 staff were still isolating as close contacts.

The current mood in the sector was one of stress, confusion and frustration, as they wondered why the delayed arrival of Omicron had been squandered by authorities who seemed ill-prepared, Bradley said.

"We attended a briefing last week from the DHB and the information they gave out was wrong, when we followed up on it," he said.

"There's constantly changing information on websites. It's a difficult time for everyone - we can't hold that against people, but just the sheer confusion when we knew this was coming is unacceptable."

The situation was a debacle, he said.

RNZ understood even critical businesses were being left in the lurch as it had been impossible to source Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) in the town today, with the nearest available pick-up points in Wānaka and Invercargill.

The Ministry of Health did not respond to questions by the deadline, and the Southern DHB directed them to WellSouth.

WellSouth said there was now a RAT collection location in Queenstown - it just had not been loaded onto the Healthpoint website yet.

"Queenstown Events Centre at Joe O'Connell Drive in Frankton is a RATs test collection location. This site was added when another Queenstown provider was not able to act as a collection site, at short notice," WellSouth Primary Health Network chief executive Andrew Swanson-Dobbs said, in a statement.

"We recognise that this miscommunication has caused some concern and Queenstown residents and businesses can be assured that RAT tests are in the resort and available for collection tomorrow.

"WellSouth staff today made contact with Queenstown-based critical workers approved by the Ministry of Health through the process and will be delivering the RAT tests to these individuals to ensure they have prompt access.

"We regret that this information did not make it to the system earlier today. We expect RAT test collection locations to be updated on the HealthPoint website by tomorrow. It is possible that collection sites could change and other options added, and so we encourage eligible workers to keep apprised of these.

"It should also be noted that courier is an option for delivery of RAT tests to eligible workers who cannot readily access a collection site."

Hospitality New Zealand lower South Island regional manager Darelle Jenkins said the government also needed to come up with more financial support for businesses and quick.

"A lot of our members - and we surveyed our members over the weekend - were saying they have nine days left and that's because the GST is due this month and you've the 20th of the month payments as well," she said.

"Our survey said turnover has reduced by 60 percent or more for 31 percent of our respondents - that's since going to red light. So that's pretty serious.

"Forty-six percent of respondents said their turnover had reduced by 30 or more percent, so that in itself is already massive. So the two of those combined - this is serious."

The situation was critical for many and businesses were having some difficult conversations this week, she said.

Without additional financial support, businesses would fold during the forthcoming Omicron wave, Jenkins said.

Queenstown's businesses were already doing it tough after two years with the borders closed and no Aucklanders for a quarter of last year. Some feared that paying wages as large numbers of staff isolated and having their doors shut at the same time might be the final straw.