Adelaide wine bar Leigh Street Wine Room faces an uncertain future after the strict enforcement of COVID-safe regulations has effectively diminished their dining capacity from 29 to 12 patrons.
After a visit from police officers on Wednesday night, co-owner Sali Sasi says the business was threatened with a $5000 fine and prosecution for breaching social-distancing rules.
The officers said because patrons were eating and drinking at the venue's bar, it was not complying with current restrictions.
South Australia restrictions on the onsite consumption of food and drink state diners must be seated separate from any bar or area where orders are taken.
However, Sasi says the business had been informed by multiple authorities that the venue is compliant.
The long bar that runs through Leigh Street Wine Room is essentially a "table on stilts", and operates as a non-service bar, says Sasi. It's distinct from service bars found in pubs, where beer is poured from taps and cocktails are made to order in front of waiting patrons.
"We've had council, we've had Dini Soulio [SA Liquor and Gambling Commissioner], and police who came out to look at our venue in full operation," says Sali. "[Police] were standing outside on a Friday night which is when we're at our absolute peak, watching it for 10 minutes at a time, and saying: 'Yep, you're doing everything to adhere to COVID rules. It's a compliant, non-service bar'."
The venue has a COVID-management plan in place and requires all patrons to sign-in upon arrival. It also has a COVID marshall on staff, who's trained and assigned to promote infection-control practices and physical distancing in the workplace.
Sunday night, however, was the first time Sasi was informed the venue was in breach of state regulations. Leigh Street Wine Room was holding a private event with staff from The Summertown Aristologist when a police officer "stormed" through the venue. Sali says she was told to remove patrons from the venue; she declined to do so.
"I said, 'We're deemed as compliant. Unless you've got an order to state otherwise I'm not removing anybody'."
When police officers visited the wine bar on Wednesday night, they threatened Sasi with a $5000 fine and prosecution if she refused to comply with a direction to stop seating patrons at the bar by the next day.
In a statement, a spokesperson for SA Police said officers regularly visit businesses, accommodation facilities and private addresses to ensure compliance with COVID-19 directions.
"SAPOL will continue to work with business owners; and where appropriate, provide advice and education as required to any business owner or individual in relation to COVID-19 matters.
"Police have found that this advice has been generally been well-received, with an immediate positive change to the behaviour.
"In situations where there is a blatant disregard for the directions, or if a person or business has been previously warned for a similar breach, then a fine will be considered."
At maximum capacity in pre-COVID times, Leigh Street Wine Room could fit 120 patrons standing. Current restrictions in South Australia enforce a two-square-metre density rule, meaning 29 people can fit in the venue. Without bar seating, and with current restrictions, it can accommodate a maximum of just 12 people seated at its few dining tables.
"Tonight I have to call 18 people to cancel their bookings. And on Friday and Saturday nights we have a minimum $100 per head spend, so I'm losing a good $6000 to $7000," says Sali.
The flip-flopping on the bar-seating rule means the wine bar faces an uncertain future. As restrictions in South Australia eased after the first nation-wide lockdown, Leigh Street Wine Room reopened in late May, and hired three full-time staff.
"We at Leigh Street Wine Room are the first to follow guidelines," says Sasi. At the advent of the pandemic, she petitioned for Premier Steven Marshall to force a shut-down of businesses to ensure the safety of staff and diners.
"We've always been champions in support of ensuring safety. But when it no longer makes sense – when you're saying people can have 50 guests at home for a personal gathering, in a tiny lounge room, and then tell me in a venue where there's a two-square-metre density rule and limited capacity, that we can't have people seated at a bar?
"That's when it becomes illogical. And when it no longer makes sense, then I have a problem."
Leigh Street Wine Room is about to celebrate its first birthday on Friday 4 September. Only one staff member qualifies for the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme.
"That's why I'm kicking up an uproar," says Sasi. "Because we're on the brink of losing everything."
Leigh Street Wine Room, 9 Leigh Street, Adelaide, SA, leighstreetwineroom.com
This story was originally published on Thursday 3 September, 12.40pm AEST. It was updated to include a statement by SA Police.