Publican says police acted ‘unethically’ in COVID-19 blitz
THE only hotel in the small southwest Queensland town of Wallumbilla could soon be forced to close its doors for good after being dealt a potential final blow in the form of a $6672 COVID-19 infringement notice.
For decades The Federal Hotel - the last remaining pub in Wallumbilla - has been the sole meeting place for the community of 400 people and travellers, but on Saturday eight plain clothes police officers walked through the doors as part of a Public Health Act blitz on licensed venues.
The Federal Hotel owner Samantha Senescall said the officers had not made a booking, did not sign in upon entry, moved tables closer together without asking, parked in a 'no parking zone, then returned Sunday morning to take photos of the pub before handing over the hefty fine on Sunday evening.
The Federal Hotel was one of four southwest Queensland pubs to be fined for breaching the Public Health Act during the weekend.
But unlike other licensed venues, Ms Senescall fears the fine will bankrupt her business.
Ms Senescall has struggled to make ends meet for the hotel throughout the past seven years of record-breaking drought
"We truly may lose the only pub in town due to this," Ms Senescall said.
"I financially will not recover from this.
"I not only can't afford to pay a lawyer, but I can't afford the $6600 fine - that's more than I make in a week!"
Federal Member for Maranoa, David Littleproud said he understands police were simply doing their job, but pubs have been doing it tough through the pandemic.
"This could be the final straw for some of them if the fine isn't waived," he said.
Publican fights back
Ms Senescall claims the operation that involved her pub was "unethical".
"I already had a table of seven who had booked ahead, so I organised one chef to work and the other to have his day off," she said.
"Then these plain clothes officers walked in, not explaining who they were and I thought I was doing the right thing sitting them away from the other table - I wasn't willing to say 'no' to people.
"I then organised the other chef to work on his day off.
"It all seemed fine - until four officers came back Sunday afternoon and handed me the fine.
"And the thing is, they all kept talking on top of each other I couldn't even comprehend what the fine was for.
"They said I needed more hand sanitiser or should cover the pool table or should have one exit and one entrance, but I explained that's breaching the Fire Safety Act.
"I thought I'd get it in writing, but the fine doesn't even explain the breach!
"It was all minor problems and I'd try and answer their questions but they were talking on top of one another - it was very intimidating."
Ms Senescall wished the officers should have approached it differently.
"They could have worked with our businesses out here and ensure they keep us up to date with the ever-changing restrictions," she said.
"I understand if there were previous breaches, but we were not told."
Impact on the community
The Wallumbilla and surrounding community will be devastated if The Federal Hotel is forced to close its doors, Ms Senescall said.
For the town and surrounding properties with a population of about 400 it has been the go-to place for a pub dinner or catch up with friends.
"The community will suffer from this - there won't be a communal meeting point for family or friends," Ms Senescall said.
"I have elderly residents who don't even drink come to the pub just to socialise - that's their only outing.
"I support the footy club, local charities and local businesses through the pub."
If the doors close, Ms Senescall will be forced to let go her full-time barmaid who has worked with at The Federal Hotel for 14 years.
"It will be a massive blow to her and her family if she loses this job," she said.
"And I have two chefs who are on working visas who will find it extremely hard to find work during this time."
National Party deputy leader Mr Littleproud has joined the fight for Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to give leniency to struggling businesses.
Mr Littleproud said there were clear double standards when enforcing COVID-19 restrictions, with thousands allowed to congregate for protests last month.
"The police are simply enforcing the laws the state government has given them," he said.
"It's the state government that needs to fix this."
He said he is writing to the premier to ask her to reconsider the fines, but ultimately it's her decision.
The Queensland Police Service has been approached to provide a comment.