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COVID-safe Christmas but New Year's Eve dancing off table for many

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While South Australia looks set to celebrate a COVID-safe Christmas, New Year’s Eve festivities at a host of nightclubs and venues are likely to be dance-free, with operators expressing frustration at delays processing their COVID Management Plans.

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Australian Hotels Association SA CEO Ian Horne said many of Adelaide’s nightclubs and music venues were still waiting for official management plan approval.

“For the vast majority of venues, including nightclubs and including our live venues, unless it’s a private function there can be no dancing,” Horne said.

“Under the current rules in a license venue drinking and dancing can only happen in a private function of up to 200 people.

“Whereas in the same venue, if its not a private function and just general access then you can’t dance there.

“The only way you can have dancing in nightclubs or pubs or live music venues is to qualify for a COVID Management Plan.

“Every venue currently has a COVID Safe Plan but a COVID Management Plan takes it to another level.”

SA Health last week announced that it would begin processing hospitality venues’ management plans again after a five-month “pause”.

The management plans detail how venues will minimise potential spread of disease, on top of the already in place coronavirus safeguards.

To be eligible to allow dancing and drinking at the same time, venues aren’t allowed to have mosh pits, must to cap patrons at 200 and pre-sell tickets to all events.

Venues were also originally told patrons could only attend one nightclub an evening as part of the management plans – but this rule was later scrapped.

But venues can allow dancing and drinking at the same time at private functions of up to 200 people.

Bank Street Social co-owner Shaun Campbell said he was hopeful the venue might be able to allow a dance floor on New Years Eve, following last week’s announcement.

But since submitting the venue’s plan Campbell said he’d been told by SA Health there was “not adequate time for us to evaluate your plan, so we will not be able to provide an approval. Please operate as per your COVID safe plan”.

“We initially started the process back at the beginning of the year but then the processing of the COVID Management Plans was put on hold for several months,” he said.

“We updated and resubmitted. It’s a lengthy document … and it took our team about eight hours to fully complete the paperwork.

“When we resubmitted it we were told upon receipt that it simply wasn’t going to be processed in time for the event that we’d proposed for New Years Eve, which was no usual to our normal operating at the present time – except having a small dance floor.

“We explained that verbally and in an email to SA Health and we were very much given the impression that their staff have already gone on holidays and weren’t going to be getting to the plan approved prior to New Years Eve.

“We pretty much returned our plan as quickly as we possibly could have, after receiving the notice from SA Health last week that we could submit the plan after that long period.

“Had they known or planned that they were going to start looking at plans and venues, that (message) could have been sent out a couple of months ago and been ready for this time of year.”

Campbell said while many other sectors shut down over the Christmas and New Year period, it was one of the most financially important times for the hospitality sector.

He said given it had been a “long year for the industry and the community” the venue wanted to be able to provide a space where people could celebrate the end of the year by hitting the dance floor.

“I think people will be disappointed to learn that a clerical delay is the only thing stopping them celebrating the end of 2020 with a dance,” Campbell said.

He said without the approval of a management plan the club would be forced to try and prevent people from dancing – but allow them to stand and drink.

“I think it’s an unrealistic expectation by SA Health and the Transition Committee to allow people to stand up but you then have to police the degree to which they’re moving,” Campbell said.

“Interstate there are provisions for small dance floors, that came in at the same time as the standing up rules were relaxed.

“South Australia didn’t follow suit … (we) have to have a staff member allocated to determine what is and what isn’t dancing, how much movement constitutes dancing.

“It’s very hard to police and I don’t think it’s fair on venues to have to make those kinds of judgements.

“We will set up the venue so that dancing is discouraged, if our plan isn’t approved … but I think the decision making on this one has been a little ill-guided and a little bit naive compared with what is happening already in other (interstate) venues.”

Sugar nightclub. Image: CityMag.

Sugar nightclub owner Driller Armstrong said the venue had submitted its management plan “months ago” and was yet to hear the outcome.

“The management plan that we submitted is thorough. We’ve ticked the boxes. It just needs to be approved – they just need to look at it and approve it,” he said.

“Every time restrictions come in that affect hospitality, an email goes out from SA Health, telling us in hospitality that the approval process for management plans has been put on hold while these restrictions are in place, which absolutely makes no sense. Why would you stop the approval process?

“These restrictions could change at anytime.”

Armstrong said the nightclub looked likely to operate over the New Years period with socially distanced stand-up drinking allowed but no dancing.

“They’ve just lifted the restriction on seating, so at least people can stand-up and talk. They still have to social distance of course from other groups,” he said.

“Our normal capacity is 225 and we’re trading at 106. So it’s a massive restriction on our business, we’re basically at half capacity, which is half revenue essentially.”

Horne said management plan processing was taking “up to several weeks” and as a result it was unlikely dancing and drinking would be allowed across South Australian venues until the end of January.

“What was announced a week and a half ago was they will now accept management plans for consultation,” he said.

“But the process is quite clear, the process will take up to several weeks. Not days, several weeks – and that essentially means nothing has changed.

“If you’re in Perth you can dance in any pub, club or nightclub, in Darwin you can do the same and in Queensland they’ve got an innovative thing where dance floors can have up to 50 people – but not South Australia”

He has urged the State’s Transition Committee to allow venues without management plans to have dance floors with limited capacity.

Horne said this would alleviate the processing wait time and reduce the burden on venues’ of ensuring people don’t dance and drink at the same time over New Years.

“To not acknowledge that there’s going to be management issues of dancing is to put your head in the sand,” he said.

“There will be dancing in the streets, there will be people kissing strangers, that’s always been the way. No amount of regulation or emergency declarations are going to stop that.

“Why wouldn’t you give the industry at least some capacity to at least manage it in a way that reduces the risk?”

SA Police said South Australia’s coronavirus restrictions were “constantly under review and may change before the New Year’s period”.

“As with all our decisions, we will take the health advice,” a spokesperson said.

“We are keen to make these changes as quickly as we can, but we do need to step carefully so we don’t unnecessarily increase the risk to the South Australian community from COVID-19.

“We are always trying to find that balance.”

A spokesperson for SA Health said there was “no set timeline at this stage” for management plans to be processed but that each plan would be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

SA Health said plans would need to be assessed and approved by the COVID Management Committee, which would meet twice this week and then not again until January 5.

“The COVID Management Committee has agreed on these principles and will work through the applications to approve plans to ensure venues can operate in COVID safe way while maintaining the health and safety of South Australians,” it said.

SA Health said venues that had submitted the management plans earlier in the year would “need to ensure the new CMP (COVID Management Plan) they submit meets the required set of principles”.

Live music venue The Gov hasn’t applied for a COVID Management Plan and will hold an invitation-only private function by La Bomba.

A spokesperson said they hoped to be able to return to a public New Years Eve event next year.

They said while the venue would be closed over Christmas and Boxing days, following The Gov’s Swing Ball on December 27, The Gov would return to regular opening hours.

It expects January to be busy with a collection of emerging local bands, as well as tributes to David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and 90s rock hitting the stage in 2021.

They said while the venue would be closed over Christmas and Boxing days, following The Gov’s Swing Ball on December 27, The Gov would return to regular opening hours.

It expects January to be busy with a collection of emerging local bands, as well as tributes to David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and 90s rock hitting the stage in 2021.

While many Adelaide restaurants will also close over Christmas, including Italian restaurant Osteria Oggi and Asian-fusion eatery Peel St shutting their doors, it comes after a busy week in hospitality.

Japanese eatery Shobosho and sister restaurant ShoSho will close their doors after a Christmas Eve lunch sitting and remain shut for Christmas Day.

Co-owner and chef Adam Liston said it followed a booming week of trade for Shobosho.

“It’s been incredibly busy,” Liston said.

“Last week, Shobosho recorded its biggest week of revenue ever. It’s always been busy but with people not going overseas and seeming a little cautious to head interstate, people seem to be staying local and coming out.

“They seem to be spending more per head overall.”

He said the restaurants would close despite the influx of patrons to give staff time to to spend Christmas with their families.

Churches adapt to Christmas restrictions

South Australian faith communities are preparing for COVID-safe Christmas celebrations by live streaming services, introducing booking systems and discouraging singing.

Under the State’s coronavirus restrictions religious events must abide by the one person per two square meter rule and have a contact tracing system in place.

SA Health has also recommended congregations “avoid singing together or consider designating one person or a very small group of people who can maintain physical distancing”.

A fact sheet from the Department said as singing increased the distance that droplets could travel, spacing people at least two meters apart was advised.

“COVID-19 is spread via droplets during close contact when another person breathes in droplets containing the virus,” it said.

Trinity Church Adelaide. Photo: supplied.

As a result, St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral will discourage Christmas attendees from singing in a bid to reduce the potential spread of disease.

A spokesperson said the Catholic church would have a choir but with “lots of people in close proximity” the Wakefield Street parish had decided not to allow singing at Christmas for the first time.

People can still pray aloud.

The spokesperson said while St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral holds up to 800 people this year’s service would be much smaller, with only 240 people allowed in the Cathedral under the COVID-19 capacity restrictions.

The church will live-screen the Cathedral service for a further 75 people in a nearby hall and a temporary outdoor area.

Meanwhile, Trinity Church Adelaide will not prevent singing.

Trinity Church Adelaide senior pastor Des Smith said the evangelical church would be monitoring the space between church-goers and have additional cleaning as well as sanitising stations as precautions, in line with the latest health advice.

“We’ll be singing this Christmas but we say to people: If you want to bring a mask because you feel more safe, do that,” Smith said.

“We’ll certainly be very keen to be doing the right thing.”

While the faith group’s North Terrace church is set to hold half its usual capacity over the holiday period, Smith said a Christmas Eve service would be live streamed and available to watch on YouTube.

He said the church had begun airing its services after the state’s second lockdown, to enable people to stay connected with their faith regardless of the circumstances.

“It’s to make it easier for people to feel part of it, even if they can’t come in physically because they’re still feeling nervous or they’re unwell or they’re just keen to check out church but are a bit nervous about coming into the building, because that can be a big step for people,” Smith said.

Trinity has implemented QR codes as well as an online registration system for its Christmas gatherings to help make contact tracing more efficient and monitor the number of people attending services.

“We’re quite big and we normally have about 850 people come across all of our services on a Sunday,” he said.

“Obviously with the two square meter rule, our capacity has meant we can’t fit all of those people in. So we’ve rented a local school – Temple Christian College – to create a second site where people can meet.”

While the evangelical church has held a Christmas carols and kids Christmas event during previous Decembers, the events were cancelled following the State’s Parafield cluster.

Mental health over Christmas

Mental health groups, including South Australian community mental health organisation Skylight and national organisation Beyond Blue, will be available for people experiencing distress over the Christmas period.

Skylight CEO Paul Creedon said while it was “not unusual” for the mental health organisation to experience a surge in calls over the Christmas period, Skylight was already experiencing about 30 per cent increase in calls compared with last year as a result of the pandemic.

“My sense is it (Christmas) is a time where the risk of stress is heightened, even if we don’t see increased numbers.

“The expectations from the community around happy families is not true for a lot of people and so the sense of isolation and disconnectedness can be increased for a large number of people.”

He said the mental health service’s phone line had received an influx of calls during the state’s Parafield cluster.

“People who traditionally wouldn’t be accessing mental health services are now looking at doing some of that contact,” Creedon said.

“It’s around isolation and distance from the community and anxiety and depression that comes about from separation from family, the inability to travel, the difficulty even just travelling from one side of the metro area to the other as it was only a few weeks ago.”

He urged South Australians to reach out to socially isolated and vulnerable members of the community who may not be able to spend Christmas with their loved-ones.

“It’s just touching base with your community and engaging,” Creedon said.

“It’s about touching base and checking in and the notion of, ‘are you OK?’ and following that up with ‘what can we do if you’re not feeling OK’.”

Beyond Blue lead clinical advisor Grant Blashki said it was a time to show compassion.

“The festive period is a special time for many of us, but it can also be a confronting time for people who are lonely or isolated, or amid economic hardship,” he said.

“Now is a good time to be compassionate above all else – to yourself and to those who are doing it tough this year.”

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