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"My staff can live now." What the 10-person rule means for struggling restaurants and cafes.

This week, cafes, restaurants and pubs have begun polishing cutlery, setting tables and prepping kitchens to welcome their first diners in almost two months.

Some in South Australia are already open to a limited number of customers, with those in New South Wales, the ACT, Queensland, Northern Territory, Tasmania and Western Australia set to join them in the coming days.

This wind-back of life-saving social distancing restrictions is a major step in Australia’s fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic. But for the men and women behind these businesses, it’s still far from situation-normal.

Scott Morrison explains step one of easing restrictions. Post continues after video. 

Video by 9 News

With a maximum of 20 patrons allowed in WA venues and 10 in the five other states and territories mentioned (Victoria isn’t moving on the issue just yet), many restaurant and cafe owners are currently grappling with the numbers, deciding whether it’s viable to open their doors.

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Not to mention safe.

Those that are, have had a matter of days to work out how to adapt.

Ben Siderowitz owns The Corner House, an Italian restaurant in the Sydney beachside suburb of Bondi. His venue normally seats up to 170 people, but will be reopening on Friday under the new rules.

“On Sunday, I was having a coffee with a mate and he said, ‘Oh, you’ve heard about the restrictions being eased as of Friday?’… I hadn’t actually read it until he told me,” Ben told Mamamia.

“I was a bit confused at first. I said, ‘Ten people? That’s about five per cent of our capacity. What do I do?'”

That afternoon Ben came up with a model: open one floor of the restaurant for a ‘rent your own bar’ experience. A prepaid $1000 bar tab will afford a group of 10 unlimited pizzas, a couple of cheese and meat boards and control of the music.

And it seems demand is well and truly there.

“Things move at the speed of light; from Sunday when it was just an idea, to Thursday three o’clock in the afternoon [we’re] totally booked out. People are banging down the door… I’m getting about 100 emails an hour. It’s just insane; I can’t keep up,” he said.

“I even had people offering three times, four times, five times the amount just to get a spot.”

That level of eagerness has some concerned about a potential spike in outbreaks.

What are the chances of a second wave of coronavirus in Australia? The Quicky investigates.

That’s weighed on many in the industry, Ben included.

“I’ve been very conflicted throughout the whole process,” Ben said. “As a human being and someone who is concerned for my safety, I was like, ‘please guys, stay at home’.” Ben said. “But then as a business owner, I’m like, ‘C’mon guys, don’t stay at home — come out.’ It’s been this real inner turmoil that I’ve had.”

“I’m now able to put money in my staff’s pockets.”

The hospitality industry was among the hardest-hit by the COVID-19 restrictions, as venues were ordered to shut to help limit the spread of the virus. The Grattan Institute estimated half of all Aussie hospitality employees would be out of work as a direct result.

Federal government subsidies, including the $1500-per-worker-per-fortnight JobKeeper program, have helped keep many afloat.

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But the relaxed restrictions mean income for those who weren’t eligible, the possibility of tips for those who were and paid invoices for struggling suppliers.

“I’m now being able to put money in my staff’s pockets. They can live now; they were doing it tough,” Ben said.  “So it’s just a great position to be in.”

Of course, many in the industry aren’t so fortunate: larger restaurants with higher operating costs, tiny ones unable to offer safe distance between tables, those in less affluent areas that can’t demand a minimum spend from customers, and plenty more.

It’s part of the reason Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is reluctant to allow the move in his state: “I think the feedback from many businesses is that, at just 10 patrons, it’s hard to be viable,” he told a press conference last week. A “bigger step” has been flagged for June.

That’s likely to be more in line with the second phase of the three-step ‘road-out’ plan outlined by Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week.

Stage two sees 20 guests allowed in venues, and stage-three bumps that up to 100.

The goal at the moment is to have the entire country at that final stage come July, presuming the number of new cases of COVID-19 infection remains low.

Even at just 10 patrons, Ben thinks it’s a fair approach.

“I know a lot of people think that it’s bullshit, and would rather just wait a bit longer and open up with more. But I think if you can come up with a viable business model then why not?” Ben said.

“This is a nice little litmus test to see how it works with people, without really opening the floodgates.”

Read more about COVID-19:

To protect yourself and the community from COVID-19, stay home as much as possible, keep at least 1.5 metres away from other people, regularly wash your hands and avoid touching your face.

If you are sick and believe you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your GP ahead of time to book an appointment. Or call the national Coronavirus Health Information Line for advice on 1800 020 080. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

To keep up to date with the latest information, please visit the Department of Health website.

Feature image: Supplied.

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