Liquor stores warn of chaos under proposed level 3 restrictions

A cashier sits in front of a closed alcohol section in a Johannesburg Pick n Pay on Monday.
A cashier sits in front of a closed alcohol section in a Johannesburg Pick n Pay on Monday.
Image: iStock / Izusek

The organisation representing owners or operators of more than 1,400 retail and wholesale liquor stores, employing more than 14,000 people, believes the regulations governing the sale of alcohol when level 3 comes into effect are impractical and will lead to higher Covid-19 infections.

SowetanLIVE's sister publication BusinessLIVE reported that the government notice for level 3 liquor regulations states that sales may take place only on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday between 8am and noon “subject to an industry plan on social distance [sic] and quantitative restrictions”.

The South African Liquor Traders Association (Salta) has submitted a detailed plan to the government outlining protocols to maintain and ensure social distancing. It offers a formula to manage the volumes of booze that customers will be allowed to buy.

It does not believe it will be possible to meet the objectives of the Disaster Management Act and operate within the designated hours announced by trade and industry minister Ebrahim Patel.

Restricting trade to 12 hours a week is bound to lead to long queues outside off-licences. Even if retailers make arrangements to limit the number of customers inside a shop at any given time, the bottleneck at the door, particularly near closing time, will deliver the perfect environment for the transmission of the disease.

Advocate Stephan du Toit, who owns a wine farm, argues that alcohol itself does not facilitate the spread of Covid-19 and therefore its sale should not be restricted in the regulations issued in terms of the act.

“The spread of the disease results from proximity. That is why social gatherings are prohibited. The availability of alcohol for consumption in a home environment is a constitutional right. The proposed regulation does not stand the test of proportionality, and appears highly arbitrary. Why only Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays? Why only from 8am to midday? This smacks of capriciousness,” he said.

All liquor outlets have been closed since March 27. Many store proprietors have already furloughed or laid off staff.

While they are as keen as their customers for the restrictions on the sale of liquor to be lifted, they have framed their proposal to include an undertaking to manage the relevant health and safety protocols, restricting the number of employees in each workplace.

They will make arrangements to ensure high-risk customers can be identified and managed accordingly, and have proposed erecting protective barrier screens at all public interface points.

They have also suggested trading hours of 9am-6pm on Mondays to Fridays and 9am-4pm on Saturdays.

They have also proposed restrictions on the volumes supplied - to mitigate against the risk of resale and to minimise the frequency of travel to liquor outlets to prevent panic buying.

To manage the initial surge in demand in the first week, they have suggested using the surnames of purchasers as a means of limiting the days and times of purchase: surnames beginning with A-M will be able to buy on Monday and Wednesday, and those beginning with N-Z on Tuesday and Thursday.

The association's spokesperson Sean Robinson said seven weeks of zero trading would put any business at risk.

“The proposed level 3 trading hours sets liquor retail up for failure, with queues, bottlenecks, crowding, rioting, violence and looting an inevitable result,” he said.

“We are happy to work closely with the authorities to limit the spread of Covid-19 in our stores, but we really need to be serving our customers again.”

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