Coronavirus: Rule-breaking bars and cafes won't be shut down right away - Michael Wood

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood is confident most bars and cafes will require proof of vaccination before entry once the country moves to the 'traffic light' system.

But those which don't and ignore capacity constraints won't be shut down right away, he told The AM Show on Thursday. 

Sometime before Christmas - likely in early December - the alert level system introduced in March 2020 will be ditched, replaced by the COVID-19 Protection Framework. This new system has three levels - red, orange and green - which take into account not just the spread of the virus, but local vaccination coverage. 

Vaccine passes with a six-month expiry were made available on Wednesday. 

At all levels, venues and events which don't require proof of vaccination will have limits on how many people can be there at one time. At orange and red, some services - such as events, close-contact businesses and gyms - won't be allowed to open at all without requiring vaccine passes. 

Hospitality will be limited to contactless only if they want to keep serving the unvaccinated at orange and red. At green, they can let in up to 100 customers - fewer if distancing can't be maintained - and they have to stay seated and separated. 

Research has found hospitality venues to be a significant vector of transmission of COVID-19

"All of this is very consistent," the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Rochelle Walensky said in March, after a study found a strong link between dining out and COVID cases and deaths. "You have decreases in cases and deaths when you wear masks, and you have increases in cases and deaths when you have in-person restaurant dining."

There have been concerns expressed about how the new rules will be enforced however. 

"It is going to be a little bit problematic for those businesses that might need to put extra staff on the door for example, particularly if you're a cafe," Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford told RNZ on Wednesday. "You've got less income coming in and then additional costs to have someone on the door. We really need to work that kind of thing through."

Michael Wood.
Michael Wood. Photo credit: The AM Show

Asked if police would be showing up to do spot checks like they do for underage drinkers in pubs, Wood said no.

"WorkSafe are the main organisation who are responsible for enforcing health and safety laws in workplaces. We've given them additional resourcing so they've got 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. 

"Our experience with these kinds of things is people do want to comply, people do want to keep their staff and their customers safe."

That enforcement won't be to immediately shut down businesses that aren't complying, however. 

"The approach that WorkSafe takes isn't to come in immediately and just shut people down. It's usually to come in to work with people, to engage, to make sure they understand the rules clearly and support them to follow them… 

"Ultimately they'll have a choice - if they don't want to require vaccination certificates, there will in general then be limits on the number of people that can come into a business. We're giving that choice. But we think most of those operators will want to operate with few restrictions, and will therefore support the COVID vaccine certificates." 

For most retail stores, there's no difference in capacity limits at any level for those requiring vaccine passports and those not. But Wood said the high vaccination rate in Auckland - more than 95 percent of those eligible have had their first dose - suggested many businesses would. 

"I'm here in Wellington today, but I've been in Auckland for most of this time. I actually think there's a high level of commitment to making this work from business owners, from workers and just from Aucklanders more generally. 

"In my area, the Auckland DHB area, we've a 95 percent first dose vaccination now. People are on the vaccination train, people know how important it is and I'm actually seeing businesses… who are gearing up to make this work." 

Wood said legislation to mandate vaccinations for workers in the hospitality industry would be in place "very shortly". 

In October, while announcing the mandate with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Wood said it would apply to "workers at businesses where customers need to show COVID-19 vaccination certificates", suggesting workers at hospitality venues, close-contact businesses and gyms won't have to be vaccinated if their employers don't require it of customers. 

"If those businesses want to operate without any restrictions in place - which I'm sure they will want to do - then the COVID vaccine certificates will be the way that that happens. So there's a really strong incentive for them to set up their systems to be able to do that."