The New South Wales government has put its faith in its contact-tracing abilities and a promise by hotels to implement more stringent health controls as the state battles a cluster of Covid-19 cases associated with the Crossroads Hotel.
The premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has agreed to implement new compliance measures developed in partnership with the Australian Hotels Association that will allow venues to continue operating with up to 300 patrons.
That’s despite the premier acknowledging “the health advice was that indoor venues with a number of people posed the biggest risk” and “social distancing was the most important measure to combat the spread” of Covid-19.
Sources have told Guardian Australia the powerful AHA and ClubsNSW have been in urgent talks with the government and opposition since the Crossroads cluster became known, in an effort to avoid measures that would curtail or shut down the industry.
Both groups delivered a blunt warning: a further shutdown would cripple operators and result in some businesses not reopening again.
The two organisations hold enormous sway in NSW politics despite donations from the liquor and gaming industry being banned in the state.
The sectors they represent are major employers and significant contributors to the NSW budget through gaming taxes.
The two groups also continue to make donations to federal and other state branches of the major political parties.
“We know from the health advice we’ve received from the beginning of the pandemic, that indoor activity, where people aren’t seated, is a huge health risk,” Berejiklian said on Tuesday.
“It was actually the AHA’s advice to us which said if you reduce bookings from 20 to 10 it reduces the likelihood of [having] people who may mingle. When you have a group of 10 the likelihood is that everybody stays seated.”
The new compliance measures for pubs, which come into force from Friday, focus on making it easier to trace patrons and keep them seated in smaller groups – rather than measures that would hit turnover.
There’s the overall cap of 300 patrons, plus all visitors will have to sign in, and designated Covid-safe “hygiene marshals” will oversee social distancing and cleaning.
The Crossroads Hotel cluster, which now runs to 30 cases, revealed inadequacies in the pub’s record-keeping that made it difficult to quickly trace patrons.
Sources told the Guardian incomplete paper records left authorities scrambling to find all those who attended the hotel on key dates.
Jason Marlow, the manager of the Marlow Hotel group that owns the Crossroads Hotel, has defended the venue, saying the hotel wasn’t “required to have information on everyone” who visited and more than 80% of guests booked online and provided their details.
Marlow on Tuesday conceded contact data recording could be more thorough, however, stating “we are now changing our system to having licence scanning equipment at all the points of entry”.
Because hotels had only been required to record the person booking the table, large groups were more difficult to trace.
But the new rules will require guest lists to be comprehensive and available in digital form.
The new rules will not apply to registered clubs, which will continue to be allowed to host as many patrons as they can accommodate while adhering to the four square metre rule.
ClubsNSW has convinced the government its membership sign-in systems, using paper or card records, combined with voluntary measures such as taking staff and patrons’ temperatures at some venues offer sufficient protection.
Some clubs also require patrons to sign out, which means they can provide details about when patrons have overlapped.
“Clubs already have these systems built into their business models,” Berejiklian said.
The ClubsNSW chief executive, Josh Landis, said Tuesday’s announcement was an acknowledgement of the robust health and safety measures already in place at clubs.
“This is a vote of confidence from the NSW government in the club industry’s Covid-safe plan,” he said.
Three venues have been fined and one has been shut down for 72 hours for breaching the existing Covid-safe rules.
Liquor & Gaming NSW has fined the Star casino $5,000 for breaching public health orders after groups of patrons were observed standing and mingling between groups while consuming alcohol on Saturday night.
The Golden Sheaf hotel in Double Bay has also been charged after breaches last Wednesday while NSW police on Tuesday revealed a licensed premises in Jindabyne had been shut down for three days.
Prof Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist in infectious disease control at the University of NSW, said she hoped NSW could still avoid another lockdown with vigorous tracing.
“It’s all about the ability to get a phone number to contact anyone exposed as quickly as possible,” she said.
“Typically, for every one person at the pub, it will be necessary to contact another 10 people, so it becomes a big task.”
McLaws said the problem with groups of 20 only recording a host’s name was they might not recall everyone in the party.
“It’s a race against time to prevent a second-generation spread,” she said.