By Jessica McLaughlin
DEBATE has sparked over who is at fault after a number of Wagga businesses copped hefty fines for failing to comply with COVID-19 regulations.
With fines of both $1000 and $5000 handed out to at least three pubs and restaurants across the city, the focus has switched to the difficulties businesses face in keeping up with the ever-changing rules, and whether or not enough support exists to guide them through the new norm.
Wagga Business Chamber president Rhyley Hunter said he felt businesses were doing the best they could to comply with regulations, but could only do so much.
"Things are changing week to week and sometimes even daily, so it's extremely difficult for our business but I do believe the majority are adapting well and keeping up to date," he said.
"We definitely feel for their situation, and it also comes down to patrons' responsibilities to comply."
Mr Hunter said the general public need to play their part in ensuring businesses meet the strict guidelines in place.
"People are still lingering around the bar, or standing around chatting when they know they need to be going straight back to their seats," he said.
"Also, a venue can have all the correct protocols for signing in but all it takes is one patron to slip through and refuse to sign and the business gets in trouble, so it is a two way street."
Support did exist for various businesses, according to Mr Hunter, reiterating that ignorance was not an excuse.
"Many of these venues have teams and systems helping them in the background, and there are a lot of government resources available, as well as through industry bodies, so realistically no one should be left not knowing what to do," he said.
William Farrer Hotel owner and Wagga Liquor Accord representative David Barnhill said the issue resided with compliance on both ends.
"The message is pretty clear, but compliance does get tough when the pubs start to get busier," he said.
"I's all about education though, and patrons need to comply with what we are telling them.
"It is very tough times for venues at the moment, we went from complete closure to limited numbers and now to about half capacity, so we want to stay open but to do that, patrons need to comply and listen."
Young entrepreneur Bella Chambers has co-created an app specifically designed to help restaurants keep on top of information recording requirements and sanitary standards, with a particular focus on regional locations like the Riverina where food is a big attraction.
"NOOK App is a digital contact tracer, it removes the need for pens and paper by allowing customers to take a photo on their phone of the QR code, fill in their details electronically, and get back to enjoying their meal or drink," the 23-year-old said.
"From a customer perspective, it's much nicer than using a pen everyone else has been using, it's quicker and often the details will save for the next time you're out, plus, you can sign in on behalf of other guests who may not have a phone on them.
"From a business perspective, it's also quicker and easier, but it also means no bottle-necking in the entrance of their venue and reduces crowds to maintain social distancing."
Information recorded in the app goes into a digital spreadsheet for management, which, if an outbreak were to occur, can be downloaded and passed on to authorities down to the second of when a guest was at a venue.
Miss Chambers said the idea came to her amid the closure of hospitality venues back in May.
"I was catching up with my friend Jeremy who is the co-founder - he's an app developer and web designer - and I brought up the idea because at that stage businesses were looking to begin the sign in process when they opened up again and I thought it would be so time consuming," she said.
"He straight away said it was an amazing idea and we went home and got to work, then within three weeks it was up and running."
The app was created with a specific intention of supporting regional venues.
"With travel restricted to Australia only, or even state by state, it's so important to help the tourism industry stay alive, particularly after the rough year they have had," Miss Chambers said.
"My sister lives in Wagga and I'm currently in Albury, so I have close ties to the Riverina and I know how important the region's food and wine industry is.
"The big thing for us with this app was making sure people felt safe visiting their local restaurant or cafe, and making sure it's easy to do that."
Wagga cafe and bar Meccanico was the first business to adopt the app to improve customer interaction and hygiene.
Owner Richard Moffatt said adjusting to the pandemic was difficult, and the NOOK App provided an opportunity to ease the stress.
"Ever since COVID restrictions first hit around March 23, every couple days there seems to be new legislation or a new policy, requirement or restriction to keep on top of," he said.
"So it has been an ever-evolving circle, and there doesn't seem to be one overarching governing body to keep us up to date - we hear about it through the media like everyone else, then have to go off and do our own research to make sure we comply."
Mr Moffatt said they made the move to digital sign-ins before it was a mandatory requirement.
"We tried the pen and paper method, but it was messy, time consuming and not as hygienic as we would have liked, so we got in touch with the NOOK App team and have found it really helpful," he said.
Overall compliance from patrons was mostly positive, according to Mr Moffatt.
"We are getting to the stage where customers are asking where to sign in before we have to tell them, so it is becoming second nature to them," he said.
"We have had to work a little bit with the older generation around the technology aspect, but that's just another opportunity for us to provide good customer service."
Mr Moffatt said when the pandemic eases, they intend to keep the sign-in concept going.
"It is probably a system we'd keep, because we find that, as a licensed premises, people are generally on their best behaviour when you have them recorded, so moving forward we think it will be good solely as a security measure, and obviously not for marketing purposes," he said.