Dancing, hook-ups and bar banter will be off the menu as New Zealand’s pubs and bars reopen on Thursday night, with some saying the social distancing requirements will make for a “sad and strange” atmosphere in the nation’s party hotspots.

Last week, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, moved the country from coronavirus lockdown level 3 to level 2, meaning most shops and restaurants could reopen, as well as schools, workplaces and public amenities.

However, on advice from the Ministry of Health, bars and nightclubs remained closed for an additional week, because people’s close proximity meant they were deemed particularly high risk. One of the country’s largest outbreaks was spread at a St Patrick’s Day gathering at a Matamata pub in the North Island.

On Thursday night, pubs may finally open their doors but for some, capacity will be more than halved because customers must remain seated at socially distanced tables and be waited on by a dedicated server: the social “bar” of a bar is off-limits and no one is allowed to mingle with other tables – though shouting across the room will be permitted, some bar managers said.

Rogue and Vagabound in central Wellington is known for its live music and raucous dancefloor. The bar’s capacity will be reduced from 150 to 80 patrons, and live music and dancing – unless you are standing up at your own table – will not be permitted.

Its general manager, Lara Denby, said she was expecting a busy night, and most of the tables had been pre-booked by regulars used to mixing and mingling.

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“We’re a fast-paced bar, it’s usually pint after pint after pint over the bar, so the pace will feel much slower, but it might be nice, we could get a chance to slow down and talk with our customers more,” she said.

“People are really excited to be coming out, but it could be a bit sad and strange. Our customer base is very connected with each other, but it will have to be that gentle reminder, that you can’t do that in ‘the new normal’. Just stand in place at your table and have a dance on your own if you want … so strange.”

‘More like a lounge bar’

Down in Dunedin the capacity at the Craic bar in the Octagon has been slashed from 100 to a maximum of 40 people. A popular spot for dancing, manager Bruce Hoffman said he was expecting a quiet night with such reduced capacity and his staff would be policing the toilets in addition to the bar for any unauthorised mingling.

“It’s going to really change the atmosphere, we usually have live music and we can’t have that now because it would encourage people to dance and get too close,” Hoffman said.

“I think the vibe will be quiet, more like a lounge bar. I think people are quite desperate to get out for a beer again, it gets boring at home. But you can’t mingle with any other tables, though I guess we’ll allow people to talk to other tables from afar.”

Grand Hotel Eric Ryde prepares to reopen his business in Akaroa, New Zealand.

Grand Hotel Eric Ryde prepares to reopen his business in Akaroa, New Zealand. Photograph: Kai Schwörer/Getty Images

With the new enforcements in place, many smaller, cocktail-style bars have said it was not economical to open their doors during level 2, and venues usually patronised exclusively for dancing such as clubs have also said they intend to stay closed until level 1, as a nightclub with no mingling allowed would defeat the purpose.

A police spokesperson said they were aware people were excited about bars reopening and that officers would be maintaining a “visible presence” in party hotspots.

“We understand people are keen to socialise and visit their favourite establishments, however, restrictions remain in place and safety is the number one priority,” the spokesperson said. “Officers will maintain a visible presence in our communities and continue with reassurance patrols around licensed premises”

“Most New Zealanders are doing the right thing and acting responsibly. Let’s keep it up so we don’t risk the gains we’ve made to date.”



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