Group Therapy: Should There Be a Government-Mandated Vaccine Pass To Eat and Drink In Australia’s Restaurants, Bars and Cafes?

Delta has brought many Australian hospo venues to their knees, but the answer to getting the economy going, venues reopened and keeping people safe is not simple. It’s a legal and ethical quagmire that places restaurateurs and chefs at the forefront of the vaccine passport debate. We spoke to six industry figures to get their thoughts.

Published on 13 September 2021

What is the route out of the pandemic for Australia’s hospitality industry? It’s been the on-again off-again question ever since the country’s restaurants, cafes and bars were first laid low by the national lockdown on March 23 last year.

What looked like a resurgent industry in late 2020 and early 2021 has once again been brought to heel in Sydney and Melbourne by the highly infectious Delta strain of Covid-19, with operators in other states watching on nervously from beyond closed borders. Now, with daily case numbers well over 1000 in NSW, and climbing in a lockdown-fatigued Victoria, vaccination is being talked about as the only way out of the pandemic.

Recently, some of Australia’s best operators got behind Put a Jab on the Menu, a print, online and radio campaign and 60-second film designed to encourage diners to get vaccinated to help save the local food-and-beverage industry.

Now, there are calls to go even further and introduce a government mandated “green passport”-style document that would limit people’s access to venues such as restaurants, bars and cafes if they haven’t been fully vaccinated. The Covid green pass was first introduced in Israel, and variations on the scheme have since been adopted in countries such as Italy, Austria, Belgium, France and Germany.

The idea is that a green pass – for both staff and patrons – would allow the industry to reopen with confidence, but also encourage more people to get vaccinated.

But there remains significant vaccine hesitancy in certain sections of the Australian population, and the conversation around mandating vaccines has sparked robust and sometimes even venomous discussion both here and abroad.

Last weekend, Sydney restaurant Aria said in a post to Instagram it had opened bookings from October 18 for fully vaccinated guests only, resulting in ardent support and disapproval. Melbourne nightclub Revolver received similarly fiery responses when it posted a message in support of voluntary – not mandatory – vaccination.

Some big Australian businesses are circumventing government and making jabs mandatory, including fruit and vegetable processor SPC and Virgin Australia Airline, and others are considering it, including Telstra. In a memo to staff, owner David Walsh told employees of Tasmania’s MONA they had to get vaccinated if they wanted a job, becoming the first cultural institution in Australia to do so.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has also started talking about Victoria becoming a “vaccine economy”, where proof of double vaccination is the price of entry to venues. He’s said he’ll announce which industries will require mandatory vaccination over the coming weeks. And last week Gladys Berejiklian revealed NSW’s “roadmap to freedom”, which relies on a 70 per cent double-dose target.

Either way you see it, it’s a legal and ethical quagmire that places restaurateurs and chefs at the forefront of the vaccine passport debate. Adding to the issue is the fact many Aussies can’t even secure a jab booking, although that issue should ease in the coming weeks.

We thought it required a deep dive, or a Group Therapy session, so we decided to get in touch with some influential Australian dining figures to see if they think a green pass is the way out. And do they reckon it would work without the backing of the federal or state governments? Here’s what they said. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Firedoor, Sydney | Photography: Nikki To

Should there be a government-mandated vaccine green pass for Australian hospitality venues?

Jeremy Courmadias
Group general manager – Otto, Quay, Firedoor, Bennelong and others, Sydney

“Yes, I believe so. Restaurants have frequently been listed as exposure sites for Covid-19 and are obvious candidates for mandatory vaccination to protect staff and guests, and to ensure that the business can stay open. It’s a priority for a lot of people to be able to dine out and get back to restaurants, but to do that safely is going to be really important. I think the onus needs to be on both staff and guests to ensure the environment is safe. Getting the vaccine doesn’t negate the fact that you may end up still having Covid, but it will help protect everyone who’s in the venue.

“There’s been a pretty comprehensive and compelling coverage of what’s happening in Europe, and their handling of the pandemic – good, bad and otherwise. I think that the introduction of vaccine passports has been a big part of that. They’ve opened up their societies and Australia’s now looking with envy at how Europe’s just getting on with life.

“Our priority is to get our restaurants ready to open and speaking with our staff and getting them through the vaccination process as soon as possible so that once NSW Health gives us the green light, we’ll be ready to open the venues in the safest possible way.

“[Regarding the potential civil liberties of preventing unvaccinated people dining in restaurants], our priority is to create a safe environment for both staff and guests alike. To introduce a vaccine passport of some sort would allow a framework for us to provide that safe and enjoyable dining experience for the vast majority of people.

“We would look to the government for support to allow everything to get back to normal as quickly and as safely as possible.

“Campaigns like Put a Jab on the Menu are good, but I think the next step for the campaign is for restaurants, which require their staff and guests to have a vaccination, to then be exempt from the 14-day quarantine or isolation period [if the venue becomes an exposure site] – just because you’re requiring vaccinations doesn’t mean Covid isn’t going to come into your venue.

“What’s most important to us is for staff to come back to a safe venue, but also to have continuity of employment – so, we’re not forced to shut the doors every time someone comes through the venue with Covid-19 and essentially end up going into mini lockdowns, which will create ongoing instability. So, getting the mandate for the vaccines is step one. Step two is then ensuring that there’s that continuity through an exemption.

“We’ve done quite a lot of education for our staff on what the vaccine is, why it’s important and why we encourage them to get it, but we haven’t gone to the point of requiring it yet.”

Lona Misa, Melbourne | Photography: Parker Blain

Shannon Martinez
Owner and chef – Smith & Daughters, Smith & Deli, Lona Misa, Melbourne

“I’m looking into the legality of enforcing a vaccine rule for staff. I recently had to spend some time in hospital with an infection and it scared the shit out of me [Martinez is recovering from treatment for breast cancer]: the doctor said the reason I got sick could have literally been from something as small as a scratch. So for me, this is my business, my place of work. If I can’t feel safe in there, then what the fuck’s the point?

“It will be mandatory to be vaccinated for Covid to work with me unless, of course, you have an actual medical reason to not get a vaccine – not a bullshit one. I’m really lucky because all my staff are receptive to being vaccinated and have been able to get vaccinated because they work with me.

“So for staff, yes. For customers, I wish I could require it. I feel for my staff: the number of pricks who come into our business and refuse to wear a mask, or make a huge deal about it – my staff aren’t getting paid enough to deal with that.

“I don’t think it could be done without government backing. People aren’t going to listen to restaurants – there’s no way.

“Green passes already exist overseas. You can’t go to certain parts of the world without certain vaccinations. I don’t know what the problem is. People are acting like this is the first time something like this has happened. All our parents have that [smallpox] scar on their arms, because they had to do that to be able to go travel. And the reason we don’t have it is because it fucking worked.

“It’s just infuriating. I hate lockdowns. I hate the fact that my business is on the brink of closing down. I hate all this shit. But I also don’t want to die of a virus because some wellness idiot thinks they know more than a scientist. I’d like to see this rolled out as soon as possible but the government has also royally fucked the vaccine rollout, and I hate the idea that there are so many people out there waiting to get vaccinated who simply can’t. So I think we need to be realistic in that approach.

“Saying we can’t do this because of civil liberties issues I think is a very selfish approach. This is how we’ve dealt with outbreaks in the past forever. This is how this works. It’s not just about you, it’s about everyone.”

Southside, Brisbane | Photography: Markus Ravik

David Flynn
Owner – Southside and Rick Shores, Brisbane and the Gold Coast

“The short answer is yes. The long answer is that I don’t think anyone should be coerced into getting a vaccine – I feel strongly about that – but our priorities as venue owners are protecting staff, protecting patrons and then actually having a viable business. And how do we support our staff if we can’t pay them?

“If there is an alternative pathway out of this, all options should be on the table. But I don’t think we can afford to delay any more without having a clear and decisive way out of the current Covid situation.

“What we do is a luxury and in difficult times that should be suspended for the public good, but if the public good is now to get the economy moving, then we need people to have jobs and restaurants be open. And we need to be aware of the impact on mental health of this 18-month-long pandemic and how that’s taking a toll. We need to be pushing for a way out of this, and this is a way to do it that seems to have worked in countries overseas.

“I see what’s happening down in Sydney and Melbourne and can only imagine how hard that it is on your business and socially. Sometimes it takes that reality of a terrible situation to force the needle and to wake people up.

“A green pass would need to apply to both punters and staff. We don’t want to put anyone out of a job and we do want to give everyone the rights and liberties people deserve, but in a situation where the public needs something different, we might need to find you another job. But your job is not going to exist in the restaurant unless we do this anyway. It’s a lose-lose if we don’t do it.

“We would want it to be mandated by the government. If it’s not mandated across the board, then what’s the plan? We can’t leave it up to us to get it done. We need some direction, and there needs to be decisions made that affect everybody, otherwise it’s not really going to have the impact it needs to if it’s left up to operators to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or sit on the fence.

“I guess you could argue it impedes people’s civil liberties. But it’s not a matter of life or death for people to dine at our venues. People might have to accept that some of the things they want to do might not be available to them, based on this larger issue that we’re living through at the moment.

“But the pandemic is Groundhog Day. How do we move the dial to allow the country to open up again?”

George Kailis
Owner – Island Market Trigg, Kailis Fish Market Cafe, The Shorehouse, Perth and Fremantle

“I think the idea of both parties, the venue and the guest, being vaccinated under a green pass system is a good thing. Whether a premier like ours [Mark McGowan] would even consider that is a whole other ballgame for us. But I think it’s a positive and I think anyone in the industry who can pose or present some sort of solution that allows operators to get back on their feet, is a positive.

“But we should be discussing any possible solutions. We’re dealing with a virus that’s fundamentally antisocial in a social industry. So what do we do?

“A green pass would need to be a collaboration with the government. If anyone’s going to come up with a solution, the industry is probably the best to champion that given operators’ expertise. I also think that the government, in terms of those immediate shutdowns that we have in some states, there should be an immediate support package – rather than, ‘We’re going to shut you down and we’ll figure that out in a few months’ time.’ I don’t think that’s reasonable.

“If the industry went it alone, from a customer perspective it’s easy because they can just choose not to come to you. Staff-wise, I’m not sure of the legalities of requiring someone to be vaccinated. My stance would be more to encourage, positively reinforce and educate our team as to why they should go and get vaccinated. But the sentiment among our team is already very pro-vaccine.

“But from a customer perspective, people like to socialise. When you give people that option – ‘If you want to come out, this is what you need to do.’ It’ll be interesting to see what decisions people make in that instance.

“A government mandate probably needs to happen at the state rather than federal level. We’re dictated by what Mark McGowan wants to do and he’s gone against the federal government multiple times. He has said that even at 80 per cent vaccination rates, he’s still going to keep snap lockdowns in place. If he’s saying that then what’s the future of a green pass system?

“But when do we start living with this thing? When do we start going back to some sort of normality in terms of eating out, travelling and doing things we used to? I think that it’s great that people in the industry are jumping up and saying that we need to find a solution faster, or at least find a temporary solution until the bigger problem’s resolved.”

Chuuka, Sydney | Photography: Kitti Gould

Victor Liong
Co-owner, Lee Ho Fook and Chuuka, Melbourne and Sydney

“Every city in the world needs hospitality businesses. Restaurants feed people and train young members of the community as they take their first steps into the workforce. They make cities safer and more vibrant. They help us catch up with friends and family, celebrate, and feel satisfied through service, attention and nourishment. They are the essence of a city’s particular way of life.

“But for more than 18 months, we’ve struggled to stay operating and keep fulfilling these vital functions. For me and my industry peers, every lockdown is a devastating low point mentally and emotionally, filled with stress and dread. There’s hope when we reopen, but each time feels like opening a whole new restaurant again. It’s difficult to keep the morale and energy up, time and time again.

“There is a way out of this – an opportunity for us to emerge from this pandemic with confidence, for restaurants to get back to doing what they do best. It’s vaccination.

“I feel any worker who is customer-facing should’ve been given protection early. Our industry, one of the hardest-hit by Covid, should’ve been looked at more seriously. And I’m glad vaccines are now available for people of all age groups who want them.

“If anything has emerged from these times, it’s that we’re more connected than we thought, and that to overcome this adversity we have to band together and defeat the spread of the virus.

“I’m pro-choice, but wish everyone would recognise the importance of getting vaccinated as soon as they’re able to – for themselves, their family, the restaurant industry and so many other industries that rely on people coming together. It’s the best way for us to escape the cycle of endless lockdowns.

“Vaccine passports are our ticket to more choices. More options to travel, visit, congregate and live with this virus in our rear view mirror. We’ve all been affected by this – everyone around the world. The vaccine passport is our passport back to a world we have been denied for so long.

“Vaccination certificates existed when I was younger, for school enrolments and even for gaining Australian citizenship. I think they’re an important step to getting back to a world we all miss so much.”

Angus Love
Owner – Lovefield Catering, Adelaide

“I think the government should be doing everything it possibly can to try and get us into a new normal. It’s particularly frustrating as somebody who primarily works in events that there’s no safety net or reliable way to actually engage in an event with all the risk currently involved.

“Whether that’s a vaccine green pass, I’m not sure. I’ve thought about it a bit – to be able to say to the population, we’re not willing to let you support us unless you do the right thing. I think if the government was willing to do it, they would have done it by now. And to be honest, it’s been hard enough as someone who actually wants to get vaccinated to go and make a booking, given the hoops you need to jump through. If they rolled out that requirement right now I wouldn’t be able to get in anywhere.

“I just find it really frustrating that there’s no clear support in one direction from the government. The federal government wants to say as little as possible while at the same time hand balling everything to the states. It doesn’t feel like a national effort to move in the right direction.

“The last couple of events we had down in South Australia got shit-canned because of a weeklong lockdown. That really fucked a lot of people. There was an entire event, the Beer & BBQ Festival, that had been built and we had animals slaughtered weeks before for the event [it was postponed to late September]. I mean, in any environment there’s business risk but this isn’t a risk where we’ve marketed ourselves poorly or something similar – it’s that there’s a virus that we can’t live with and we can’t have in the community, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

“We had three or four months of a good run, then we lost the Beer & BBQ Festival, we had a big pop-up at the Royal Adelaide Show that was meant to happen this weekend before it was cancelled. It then baffles me how the AFL can go ahead at the Adelaide Oval with 20,000 people. I try not to think about it because it makes my blood boil a little bit.

“Maybe narrow-minded people are surprised that a green pass is happening overseas. I’m not surprised at all. I’ve seen a few people refer to this as fascism and that this is infringing on our rights. And I’m like, ‘Are you fucking kidding?’ The older generation grew up with things like World War II and just got on with it and banded together. I understand it was a different time, but we haven’t had that hard a life, really. Let’s knuckle down.”

This article was updated on 14 September 2021.