A steakhouse in Civic is the first venue to be penalised for flouting the ACT’s COVID-19 distancing rules, and has received a $5,000 fine.

Charcoal Restaurant owner Anna Gray said she was caught off guard when the plan to ease restrictions, which would have increased the eatery’s capacity on Friday night, was scrapped.

Staff tried cancelling bookings but found themselves way over their 12-person limit — with 20 dining in — when police came knocking.

“It was very difficult for them to say, ‘I’m sorry, you have to leave.’ They just sat down and said, ‘Well, we’ll eat quickly and then we’ll leave,'” Ms Gray said.

“It’s almost impossible to keep this place alive. The outgoings exceed the turnover in this place.”

But the head of ACT Policing’s COVID-19 taskforce said the time for excuses was over.

“On the front door, it clearly said 12 allowed,” Detective Superintendent Jason Kennedy said.

Police said the restaurant had received plenty of warnings and had been sent a letter from government agency Access Canberra.

“On this particular occasion, there was just a flagrant breach of the health direction,” Superintendent Kennedy said.

Charcoal Restaurant owner Anna Gray stands in a restaurant.
Charcoal Restaurant owner Anna Gray says she was unaware the planned easing of restrictions was scrapped.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said there was no reason venues could be unaware of the restrictions.

“We’re still committed to an engagement and education approach to the greatest extent possible, but it’s important that businesses understand action will be taken if they do flout the rules,” she said.

Small restaurants like Charcoal had been anticipating an easing of restrictions from July 10, but that has been put on hold following coronavirus outbreaks in Victoria and parts of New South Wales.

Canberrans warned against travel to South Coast

The Batemans Bay outbreak continues to be a threat, with about 130 Canberrans self-isolating after visiting the Soldiers Club over four days earlier this month, Ms Stephen-Smith said.

“Clearly it is a popular venue for Canberrans who are visiting Batemans Bay,” she said.

Ms Stephen-Smith discouraged Canberrans from going down to the South Coast this weekend, though no new cases were recorded in the area today.

“This is a weekend just to be cautious and be at home, not to travel into NSW,” she said.

“Part of the challenge with COVID-19 is that we always know we’re about seven to 10 days behind.

“Whatever is happening today, we might not find out about it for the next seven to 10 days, when the incubation period is passed and people become symptomatic.”

Police ‘open’ to stronger approach on breaches

The Charcoal Restaurant infringement notice is the second fine ACT Policing has handed out since the pandemic began.

The first was issued last week when police charged a 41-year-old man for breaching COVID-19 rules after he failed to obtain a permit to enter the ACT from Victoria.

He faces a penalty of up to $8,000 if convicted.

ACT Policing said it was open to taking stronger enforcement action for intentional and flagrant breaches of social-distancing rules.