The phony war

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    In many respects, level three does little to allow Waiheke to get back on its feet financially. Certainly, there’s an influx of construction workers, a bustle of busy-ness back on the shoreline and a heavy sigh of expanded bubbles. But, for an island built on the back of hospitality and tourism, level three holds as much – if not more – jeopardy than the more absolute lockdown of Covid level four.

    While the rest of New Zealand queues around the block and, if the social media photos I was being sent late into the wee hours of Wednesday morning can be believed, packs pavements in search of burgers and buckets of chicken, our food outlets have a more limited potential audience.

    They have braved the bureaucracy of level-three trading not to line their pockets but simply to get the gears of commerce turning again and to help keep employed those many, many Waiheke workers who rely on kitchens, countertops and dining areas to be able to pay their fortnightly rents and mortgages.

    And in return what do they get? Simply the frayed nerves of knowing that all it would take for everything to come crashing down is for our new relaxation to lead to a cluster of cases on the island and for the perception and branding of our healthy, welcoming destination to be left in smouldering ruins.

    As our story on page 23 details, “Waiheke’s wedding and events industry was in the throes of its busiest season ever when lockdown struck”. Companies are still taking some long-term bookings, and scrambling to reschedule postponements (rather than the more financially fraught cancellations) or trying more leftfield innovations to keep people interested, but all of that is very much still on a distant horizon – for now there’s a stormy level-three phony war to be fought.

    The first words out of the mouth of Poderi Crisci’s James Boyle when I called to ask what the Restaurant Association was plotting to get through this crisis were “we’re winging it”. Although that might have been slightly tongue in cheek, it speaks volumes to the sheer weight of implications and complications that our new normal has thrust upon any business to trade – let alone businesses set up on the back of inviting hordes of strangers from around the world on to our island.

    “We have to open up to survive, but…”

    That’s a huge but. In many ways, we’ve been lucky this struck at the tail end of the season rather than in mid-November, but it’s clearly going to be months before any domestic tourism starts up again in any meaningful way and potentially seasons before international visitor numbers return to anything like the levels of the past few years. Even how people want to experience our cafes, restaurants, wineries and cellar doors is likely to change completely once social distancing becomes ingrained into our everyday lives.

    James has already had to sit his staff down to explain how vital a strict diary of where they’ve been and who they’ve seen is to ensure contact tracing – that central pillar of level-three life – works. But he’s also wondering out loud whether it’s socially responsible to seat dozens of people in a dining room or if ferry companies ought to be sharing passenger lists so we can all know who’s travelling to and fro. As well as trying to see the positives in Waiheke being “overseas travel” in a domestic market starved of places to fly to and in the realisation that island businesses simply have to go back in time to rebuild the hospitality industry just as it was originally constructed from visiting Kiwis, he’s also worrying that the age-old Waiheke hospitality complaints of staffing shortages, poor infrastructure and accommodation affordability haven’t disappeared, they’ve just become more entangled in a larger problem. 

    The country is being urged to remain just as vigilant about our health crisis in level three as we were at level four, while we try to solve the economic crisis that the shutdown has created. There’s already been a certain amount of crowing in international media about the country having “eliminated” (note, not eradicated) the virus and the fear has to be that, in our rush to solve the economy, we take our eye off the prize of truly beating Covid-19.

    On Waiheke, that risk is so much more acute. Our economy is intrinsically linked to the success of our hospitality industry and we must balance the “relaxation” of the current level-three restrictions with the reality that only a further drop down to level two or even one, plus a great deal of reshaping what the island offers will help us recover financially. Any misstep on that road to recovery will cost us dear. • James Belfield   

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