Covid-weary Aucklanders will be able to dine-in at restaurants as New Zealand shakes off the shackles of alert levels and embraces the new traffic light system today after almost four months in lockdown.
The Super City moved into the red setting of the new protection framework at 11.59pm last night, which means greater freedom for vaccinated residents and the reopening of some businesses, including many in the hospitality sector.
Northland, Taupō and Rotorua Lakes Districts, Kawerau, Whakatane, Ōpōtiki Districts, Gisborne District, Wairoa District, Rangitikei, Whanganui and Ruapehu Districts are also at the red setting for at least two weeks, with all other areas at orange.
The move comes as the Government announced a funding boost worth more than $600 million to enhance intensive care (ICU) capacity to ensure hospitals are not overrun with cases expected to spike across the country. It also granted temporary exemptions to 70,000 people experiencing problems with their vaccination passports.
While some restaurateurs, who have been unable to open their doors since August 17, say the reopening is "a dream come true", others say it comes too late or doesn't go far enough.
Fabio Buonomo, 46, who started his cafe business Cornelia with his partner Lena Solomon, 27, in Parnell during the lockdown, says it will be "a dream come true" to be serving dine-in customers for the first time.
But others, like Sumo Sushi owner Kiwoon Keun, says new rules under the new system and the ongoing border closure are making it impossible for him to offer dine-in service because of a lack of staffing.
Dining-in has been off-limits since Auckland went into level 4 lockdown in August, and takeaways only were allowed when the alert level dropped to 3.
Now, crowds are expected to flock back to restaurants this weekend, with modern Chinese eatery Mr Hao already fully booked through to Sunday.
Buonomo, an Italian chef, said he opened Cornelia with the intention of having it as a wine bar and restaurant but was forced to operate only as a takeaway as a result of the lockdown.
"We are just super excited at being able to welcome our first dine-in customers, I did not start this business to be a takeaway," he said.
For Buonomo and partner Solomon, Cornelia is their first business, having opened on October 7, and they are hoping for a busy first weekend.
"I'm sure a lot of Aucklanders would be sick of takeaways now and will be looking forward to dining-in," Solomon said.
"For us, it's a lot of nerves and pressure, but it's going to be exciting. I really don't want to see that table barrier anymore, and looking forward to giving our customers the warm welcome they deserve."
Paul Wong, owner of Mr Hao restaurants on Dominion Rd and Albany, is anticipating a "dining-in rush" with both his outlets booked out for the next three nights.
"We're just hoping people will play by the rules, and won't take it out on us about enforcing the vaccination requirement for customers."
Wong said hospitality has been one of the hardest-hit industries by the Covid-19 lockdown, and hoped people will get out and about supporting local businesses.
"Being able to reopen is just a huge relief for us," he said.
But the 150-seat Sumo Sushi is unable to open for dine-in because it had been "impossible to find staff" to meet the new enforcement rules, owner Kiwoon Keun told the Herald.
"I only have two staff, and in order to police vaccination passes of customers I need to recruit at least two more people to stand at our two entrances, but there is no one," Keun said.
"My workers before were mainly international students or people on working holiday visas, but there are none around.
"It is heartbreaking to see other restaurants opening up while I am forced to keep operating as a takeaway."
Keun said takings have dropped between 50 to 70 per cent since before the pandemic and the City Rail Link construction works in the central city.
Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois said the rollout of the traffic light framework has been very challenging for the industry.
"Our businesses are diverse in size, style and location so what will work for one business may not work for another," she said.
"We have presented a number of scenarios to the Government to gain greater flexibility in how the vaccine passes could be applied operationally in different businesses and tried to get as much clarity for the industry as possible, but it has not been a straightforward process."
Bidois said the association had put together operational guidelines for the industry, which hospitality businesses could access from its website.
"However, we are still awaiting feedback from the DPMC on a few outstanding points, for example what is reasonable in terms of the number being verified, along with a few other points," she said.
"Ultimately this means that businesses are still awaiting answers on crucial questions which is incredibly frustrating."
At level red, customers must be seated and separated by at least a metre, limited to no more than 100 people subject to space.
Face masks must be worn by customer-facing staff, but not by diners, who can remove their mask when eating and drinking.
Restaurants must sight customers My Vaccine passes and "a reasonable number" must be verified.