On 14 September 2020, Premier Dan Andrews unveiled the Victorian Government’s Outdoor Eating and Entertainment Package. To facilitate the recovery of the hospitality industry, the Victorian Government has sought to transform Melbourne into an outdoor dining mecca, inspired by New York City’s Open Restaurant Program. The initiative aims to increase novel outdoor dining experiences to enable Victorians to open up quickly and safely and contribute to the evolution of the city’s cafe culture and already iconic laneways.
This package includes the Melbourne City Recovery Fund, co-funded by the City of Melbourne, a $100 million fund directed towards assisting businesses comply with health directions and adapt to the new normal, such as through the purchase of outdoor dining furniture and remodelling fitouts, organising events and activities to draw people back to the CBD, and funding infrastructure works to support a safe and accessible return.
Additionally, an $87.5 million Outdoor Eating and Entertainment Package will be offered to businesses outside the CBD. $29.5 million will go to local councils to assist them in streamlining the permit process and monitoring the increased use of public space.
What does the package mean for local hospitality businesses?
$58 million of the package will go towards grants of up to $5,000 to assist hospitality businesses pay for practical items required for outdoor dining, such as tables, plastic screens, umbrellas, streetscaping and lighting. The Premier has revealed that Perspex screens between tables could be a feature of this plan.
The implementation of such practical measures in an alfresco dining arrangement will allow venues to seat more people as well as ensure compliance with COVID-safe restrictions. However, there are inherent occupational health and safety (OHS) issues associated with such a design that employers are obliged to mitigate.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic) imposes duties on hospitality employers to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure the safety of visitors and customers as well as its employees. The design and implementation of alfresco dining arrangements need to take into account all hazards including that presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
One issue is for the potential open-air exposure to COVID-19, particularly if patrons are not seated adequately apart and there is not enough space between tables to allow for workers to move when serving meals.
Businesses will also have the capacity to extend along footpaths, laneways, carparks and adjacent areas (such as parks and other public spaces). This could potentially put at risk patrons, as well as pedestrian and vehicle traffic moving past, given the lack of space in some circumstances. Ensuring easy accessibility for emergency and like services is also an important issue to take into consideration.
Moreover, businesses will need to ensure workspaces are not congested, by perhaps staggering shifts and lunch breaks and installing separation barriers where required. Workers must also wear face coverings and the appropriate level of personal protection equipment. Restaurants or cafes which have their kitchens inside or in a basement area will need to carefully mark out worker traffic flow when delivering meals to patrons seated outside to circumvent the risk of injury, as well as transmission of COVID-19.
Hospitality businesses will need to establish and adhere to an adequate OHS plan concerning screening and monitoring measures for employees for COVID-19 symptoms, contact tracing measures, as well as infection control measures including regular sanitisation.
What does the package mean for local government?
For local councils, this package means a likely influx of outdoor dining and Streatrader permit applications and the need for close and efficient inter-departmental coordination to assess suitable dining areas.
It has always been a balancing act to ensure that public spaces are appropriately used by the public and businesses, and this balancing act will now be further complicated by the increased weight of public health and safety.
For some premises, outdoor dining may not be feasible due to their physical location, size, or given the context of surrounding sites and roads. For these businesses, additional support from councils may be required to ensure that they do not lose out to competition from neighbouring businesses.
Out-of-the-box thinking is needed on the parts of both government and business to facilitate recovery, including exploring the change of use of public spaces or the use of disused or under-utilised public space close to businesses. This might include the closure of streets and laneways, the transformation of rooftops, the conversion of carparks, the use of parks and gardens, activating the frontages of adjacent vacant or non-hospitality premises, re-alignment of pedestrian pathways, and co-ordinated use of other public facilities, such as libraries and pools. The creation of ‘parklets’ in car parking spaces on low-speed streets has proven successful in many parts of the world, including Moreland and Geelong closer to home.
What can councils do now to prepare?
It is anticipated that businesses will be permitted to reopen towards the end of October. This month presents crucial preparation time for councils to help ensure that once we are allowed to open up, we can open up and stay open up.
A preliminary exercise may be to identify areas which have the potential to be transformed, assessing parking needs, safety requirements for the construction of parklets within parking spaces, and putting in place resources to deal with the increase in applications.
If streets are to be closed, detour routes will need to be established and communicated ahead of time to increase awareness and reduce disruption. Additional litter and waste management are likely to be required to respond to the increased use of public places. For licensed premises, that also means consideration of liquor licences and the potential need for increased monitoring.