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June 18, 2020

The current COVID-19 restrictions don’t work for Adelaide’s late-night venues

Driller Jet Armstrong says his nightclub Sugar can only survive until October under the state's current coronavirus rules. Other venue and restaurant owners in the city explain how the State Government’s restrictions are limiting their ability to survive.

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  • Words: Angela Skujins and Johnny von Einem
  • Main Image: Sugar nightclub on Rundle Street
  • Second Image: A flyer for gigs in Mad March, which hasn't changed


Driller Jet Armstrong sounds rattled when CityMag asks about the status of his Rundle Street nightclub, Sugar, which hasn’t served a cocktail or welcomed a patron in almost three months.

Driller is one proprietor in a sea of city business owners, navigating a wide net of rules cast by state and federal governments surrounding what you can and can’t do during the pandemic.

“If we really strung it out, we could maybe survive until October, but that would be really difficult and stretching us to our absolute limit,” he says.

“The biggest thing that can kill you in business is uncertainty. Who knows what’s going to happen next?”

Nightclub owners like Driller have been excluded from national government guidelines for easing COVID-19 restrictions, with the most recent Federal roadmap saying nightclubs – grouped in with casinos and brothels – are to remain closed in stage two, with no mention of them reopening in stage three, or at any designated time in the future.

In South Australia’s roadmap, there’s no mention of nightclubs in any stage. However, “nightclubs and music festivals,” aka ground zero for good times, are grouped under the ambiguous title: FUTURE STEPS FOR CONSIDERATION.

Because of South Australia’s success in limiting the spread of COVID-19, the government has recently announced it will move to stage three of eased restrictions earlier than planned, on 29 June.

Much of the hospitality industry has already been trading under reduced capacity for weeks, with venue capacities set to rise from Friday, 19 June.

And there were further announcements made this week (in the rapid-fire nature of COVID-19 news), including relaxed border restrictions and minor tweaks in capacity restrictions for certain industries, such as yoga, fitness and dance studios, which can now host 20 people at a time instead of just 10.

Through all this, there is still yet to be word on any kind of workable solution for Adelaide’s nightclubs.

Driller says “this reeks of discrimination” and the restrictions are “sending people to the wall for absolutely no reason.”

“There is no real need for Sugar to still be closed. It’s just completely crazy and ruining.”

Driller’s argument, sent to Premier Steven Marshall via text, is that given South Australia has achieved such low infection and community transmission rates, what is the hold up?

This sentiment is shared even by venues that have chosen to reopen.

Leigh Street Wine Room. This image: Julian Cebo


At Leigh Street Wine Room, Sali and Nathan Sasi are trading at their current capacity limit of 20 people, using a ticketing system to combat the threat of no-show bookings.

But under the current restrictions, the restaurant isn’t able to make enough money to survive on its own, and it is relying on its sister business, wine shop Juice Traders, to keep afloat.

Just one employee at the bar and restaurant is eligible for JobKeeper, so every day of trade means incurring heavy wage costs.

“This is the wrong time to be advertising, because you’re telling people to come and it’s a dead zone” – Sali Sasi

“We felt we had a responsibility to our team to try and help them financially, by giving them jobs, but also it was morale – getting people back into a workforce is actually so healthy for people’s mindsets, including mine and Nathan’s,” she says.

“Being able to have a venue back open, even if we’re operating a smaller capacity, is definitely something we wanted to get back up and doing, trying to work proactively to rebuilding.”

Should Juice Traders no longer prove viable enough to support the restaurant, Leigh Street Wine Room would be forced to close “until all restrictions are lifted,” Sali says.

Following Victorian Premier Daniel Andrew’s derogatory comments toward South Australia this week, the State Government took the opportunity to start spruiking South Australia as a stellar tourism destination – particularly in light of our border restrictions completely falling away from 20 July.

Sali says as long as the current restrictions are in place – particularly the one-person-per-4sqm rule – any campaign to bring more people into the city makes no sense.

“I was just furious, because I thought this is now getting a joke,” she says.

“You’re opening borders, yet we can’t service our local people, because we’re turning them away based on capacity issues.

“These people have got nowhere to go, because our venues can’t take them… We’re turning groups away, and they’re saying that they’ve been turned away already at five different venues.

“We’re promoting South Australia [as having] this really beautiful city, it’s exciting, it’s got amazing hospitality, great bars, great food – well I’m sorry but this is the wrong time to be advertising, because you’re telling people to come and it’s a dead zone.”

Sali is among a number of venue owners who’ve kept direct contact with the Premier throughout the pandemic, and she’s hopeful that Friday’s Transition Committee meeting (the group making the decisions on how South Australia’s economy reopens) will result in at least two amendments to trading conditions: patrons being allowed to sit at the bar, and the spacing requirements relaxing to one person per 2sqm.

“I’m not holding my breath,” she says.

In order to continue to apply pressure, Sali and a group of hospitality operators located in the East Hindley Street region met with a group of Labor politicians on Wednesday afternoon.

The Grace Emily. This image: Johnny von Einem


Publican at the Grace Emily Hotel, Symon Jarowyj, is also hopeful for a return to bar seating, as he sees it as a key piece of his pub’s character – that and live music, which still is not viable at the venue.

The Grace band room has been transformed into a lounge area, with plush couches on the stage. Symon can’t foresee a return to live music any time soon.

“If they go to a 2sqm rule, we could still only get 40 people minus the band in the band room,” he says.

“If they said you could have your capacity halved but people can just be wherever they want in the pub, then I’d definitely be up for that. If we had our capacity at 110 but it wasn’t designated in areas, then we’d start doing music again.”

It’s a function of a venue like the Grace that people will naturally flow into different sections based on the activity occurring within the pub, making the different capacities in each room unworkable for gig nights.

“The band plays, everyone is in the band room; the band finishes, everyone goes to the front bar, beer garden. So you sort of can’t just have 20 people have to be in the front bar whilst 40 people are in the band room while the band plays. It just isn’t that kind of space.”

Kevin Gregg at the Exeter Hotel pouring his first pint for a customer in months. This image: Johnny von Einem


For Exeter Hotel co-owner Kevin Gregg, who poured the first pint for a customer after 70 days of no trading two weeks ago, he says he’s “happy with the way things are going” with government restrictions and “slower is better.”

“Our greatest fear is to open up but then have to close again,” he says.

This is a fear felt throughout the hospitality community – reopening comes at a great cost, and to shut down again would be financially devastating.

This is another concern Sali has for when South Australia’s borders reopen.

“We’ve literally just got a case from Melbourne, and people are going to be travelling from states that have got active cases – there were 21 new cases overnight. That, to me, is frightening,” she says.

“And then we as business owners then, as well, have a duty of care to think, if they are going to prematurely open up the borders without quarantine for domestic travel, is it in my best interests as a business owner, and is it ethically right for me to keep my doors open and allow these travellers to come into my venue where I then put my team at risk?

“I’ve got a real conscience decision that needs to be made, Nathan and I do, and it’s something that we’ve discussed a lot, because it’s different if we keep the borders shut to states that do have active cases, but if we’re opening it right up, I think it’s just asking for trouble, to be honest.”

Mary’s Poppin, on a not-so-popping winter’s day. This image: Angela Skujins


Stephen Craddock, owner of LGBTQI+-friendly venue Mary’s Poppin, on Synagogue Place, says he’s happy for Mary’s to keep its doors totally closed, saying he trusts the health advice of the government and wants to keep his employees safe.

He also agrees with Kevin, that opening and then subsequently closing because of a second wave would be a disaster. Mary’s is in a financially comfortable position to sit pretty and wait, he says.

But “it would be nice,” to be included in any roadmap, Stephen says, and to be able to visit Adelaide from his home in Melbourne to check on the club’s recent renovations.

“I can’t physically get there, which is what I’m frustrated with,” he says.

“Apart from that, I don’t think the time is right to open nightclubs at the moment, which is probably going to get me a little bit of heat.”

Mary’s will only open once drinking-while-seated requirements have been totally scrapped.

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