“Our bookings are full every day of the week for lunch. We’ve trained staff. Everything we did financially was to limp us through to Monday, based on us being able to trade with some sort of opportunity for profit.”
When the pandemic lockdown started in March, Ms Pollock returned thousands of dollars in deposits for functions. In the lead-up to Monday’s supposed relaxation, she had taken deposits from those eating while there was live music at her venue. “Now I’ve got to do refunds all over again.”
Jason Lui owns CBD Cantonese restaurant Flower Drum. Its large dining room easily seats 50 diners. “We were taking bookings in anticipation of that [relaxation],” he said. “We were pretty well booked up. There were a few functions that we’ve had to contact to say we can’t go ahead, too.”
Australian Hotels Association chief Paddy O’Sullivan said many pub operators who had been looking forward to the relaxation of rules were “angry the minority have ruined it for everyone”. But he said it was positive that from Monday, customers could drink at a bar without needing to also order food.
Arcobar’s Mr Madlener said he understood why the government was trying to control the movement of people, and knew how crucial it was to limit the spread of coronavirus.
But he believed restaurant operators – who obeyed strict rules around food safety and alcohol – were easily capable of handling social-distancing rules.
“We’re trusted with food and alcohol, but not with appropriate social distancing where we have the space to do it,” he said. “Meanwhile, you can wander around Chadstone Shopping Centre – it was jammed full yesterday – or the Bunnings next to us, it’s ridiculous how many people are in there.”
The state’s highest-profile restaurants have told The Age the changes were disappointing.
Vue de Monde had planned to reopen for up to 50 guests on Thursday; instead its reservations team spent the weekend rescheduling diners. The Rockpool group will this week open its Rockpool Bar and Grill, Sake restaurant, and El Camino Cantina in Fitzroy.
Opposition leader Michael O’Brien said many restaurants had geared up for restrictions easing, only to be “blindsided” by the last-minute changes.
“They’ve bought the food, they’ve hired the staff and now they’ve had the rug pulled out from under them,” he said.
But Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said it was crucial to limit social movements because case numbers were starting to ratchet up.
“The last thing we want is to have more people to be gathering in large numbers in cafes and restaurants at a time when we are seeing increasing numbers in Victoria.”
In regional Victoria, some venue operators are keen for the state government to allow areas that have not had recent coronavirus infections to loosen up restrictions, while areas that record new cases are locked down.
Warrnambool Hotel publican Steve Phillpot acknowledged how important it was to keep restrictions in place where warranted. “We haven’t felt what’s going on around the world, and we’re very lucky in Australia,” he said.
But while stressing he was “no health expert”, Mr Phillpot said he did think areas without any cases for some time “probably should be able to operate a bit more liberally. Although you’ve still got to be cautious. But if you’ve got a track record of no virus then you should be a bit looser – you’ve got to keep the economy going.”
Clay Lucas is a senior reporter for The Age. Clay has worked at The Age since 2005, covering urban affairs, transport, state politics, local government and workplace relations for The Age and Sunday Age.