Amid uncertainty over the widening Delta outbreak, Auckland restaurants are hoping and praying and preparing for Level 3 and a spike in delivery demand – but some workers are hesitant about dropping levels
As Aucklanders face the prospect of moving out of the city’s longest Alert Level 4 lockdown, restaurants are preparing for a surge in demand.
It’s a time of uncertainty: last night came the unwelcome news for people of Waikato, Auckland and indeed the entire country, that the Delta outbreak had again spread beyond our biggest city.
Today, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is to meet with Cabinet to decide whether Auckland will move to Level 3 on Tuesday at 11.59pm – but now, the decision could equally be over whether to widen the lockdown.
At Alert Level 4, all movement bar grocery shopping, exercise and essential services is barred. At Alert Level 3, movement is still restricted but food takeaways and deliveries would be allowed, as would the resumption of construction work.
Restaurateur Krishna Botica says three of her four restaurants Saan, Ghost Street and Cafe Hanoi in central Auckland are ready to open for deliveries. Her fourth restaurant XuXu is a bar, and can only open in Level 2.
“We’ve been preparing since last week. We’ve done a survey of our staff about their anxiety levels, so we know how they feel. We’ll have two separate teams operating,” Botica says.
“It’s not about the money. It’s more about just keeping our staff engaged. Even if we break even at least we’re producing food and doing what we love.”
Last week Botica’s husband and business partner Tony McGeorge penned an open letter to Auckland Mayor Phil Goff seeking support ranging from wage subsidy access in Level 2 and into next year, to quarantine facilities being moved out of the densely populated CBD. He also wrote that he wanted to see investment in activity to help the CBD bounce back.
The pair have not yet received a direct response from Goff.
“We’re after some support for the industry because the uncertainty is scaring people out of the industry,” Botica says.
“It feels like you’re playing a game of whack-a-mole sometimes. You’re fighting fires constantly. You’re wearing different hats and all the while putting on a smile for customers because you don’t want their experience to be dampened by the stress everyone’s under. It’s a crazy mental game.”
Amid all the questions, not everyone will be firing up the grill – even if Auckland does move to Level 3.
Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois says uncertainty makes it difficult for businesses to prepare for operations.
“From last lockdowns we also know that deliveries don’t work for everyone,” she says. “Many businesses tried to adapt to the takeaway and contract delivery model, but decided that it’s not really worth doing because of the losses they made.”
Businesses are also waiting to understand what Level 3 and Level 2 restrictions with Delta in the community look like for Auckland, she says.
Fast food giant McDonald’s made record sales last year when the country moved out of Alert Level 4 after a month.
“It feels like you’re playing a game of whack-a-mole sometimes. You’re fighting fires constantly.”
– Krishna Botica, restaurant owner
A McDonald’s spokesperson says its franchisees and supply chain have been working hard to prepare for any upcoming alert level changes in Auckland. This includes traffic management and ensuring all Level 3 protocols and requirements are in place.
“Based on previous experience, we typically see an initial rush from excited and eager customers, and things then calm down within a few days,” he says.
Delivery services such as Uber Eats will also resume in Level 3. A spokesperson says it is working with restaurant partners and anticipates “strong demand” from Aucklanders.
But the presence of mystery cases and Covid cases in the community is making workers nervous about returning to their workplaces. One fast food worker who did not want to be named says he is expects it will be difficult to socially distance while working in close proximity with others.
Unite Union’s Gerard Hehir says workers are more nervous this time around than last year because of the transmissibility of the Delta variant.
“The first day of Level 3 last year we saw thousands of people steam past,” Hehir says. “And there will be a lot of demand because this has been the longest Level 4 lockdown for Auckland.”
The union, which represents fast food workers, will carry out random checks at drive-throughs to ensure protocols are being followed, he says.
“The head offices of the fast food companies have been quite good about engaging, but it’s usually the manager of individual stores who may not follow the rules.”
Worksafe received 900 complaints alleging Covid-19 restriction breaches the first weekend the rest of the country moved to Alert Level 3.
Hehir says customers should also be mindful of delays given following Level 3 protocols will likely take longer to fulfil orders.
“One of the biggest things that customers can do is have patience. Also keep the windows up and only open it when the drive-through window closes to pay and take your meal. It’s actually just that simple.”