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July 19, 2022

Mandy Lusk has owned Auckland restaurant Vivace for 29 years and says the crime spike in the CBD since the March 2020 lockdown is like nothing she’s ever seen. Video / Mike Scott

An Auckland restaurant forced to close over the weekend after a staff member was attacked on her way home says crime in the inner city will likely dash any hope of the business recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another bar owner has labelled the situation in central Auckland as a “crime crisis” and is organising a public meeting next month to try to fix it.

Already faced with staff shortages and other challenges due to Covid, Luis Cabrera – owner of Besos Latinos Restaurante at Auckland’s Viaduct – said his restaurant couldn’t open on Sunday after a member of his waiting staff was targeted on Friday night on her way home and became too scared to come to work.

“My staff was crying and struggled to get her words out when she told me what happened, and then told me she was not coming in to work anymore … she was too scared to even come out of her house,” Cabrera told Herald.

“We used to have 12 staff, now we are down to just one dishwasher, one kitchen hand and two waiting staff. The other one is also now afraid of coming because of what happened, so I had to assure her that I will drive her home after the late shifts.”

Police maintain presence on a saturday night. File photo / mike scott
Police maintain presence on a Saturday night. File photo / Mike Scott

Cabrera said his restaurant has been smashed into three times, with liquor, a computer and till stolen and his wife’s car had also been broken into and her laptop stolen while in a downtown carpark.

Besos Latinos has been running since 2010, first at Elliott Stables before moving to the Viaduct in December 2019 – three months before the first level 4 lockdown.

“Just when you think things can’t get any worse something else happens that makes you wonder if you’ll be able to survive,” said Cabrera, originally from Mexico.

“Auckland was a different world when we first, we all felt safe back then, now it is different. Police seem helpless in doing anything. Even back in Mexico, restaurants don’t have to worry every day if it will be robbed or smashed.”

Police data shows inner-city crime has surged above pre-pandemic in the 12 months to March with 5633 thefts, 2130 assaults and 154 aggravated robberies.

Despite reports of crime having risen by 36 per cent, other incidents – including the one involving Cabrera’s staffer- goes unreported.

“She is just too scared and does not think it will make a difference even if she made a report,” Cabrera said as to why his staff member has not yet complained to police.

According to Cabrera, his 23-year-old staffer was passing Aotea Square on her way home around 10pm when a woman tried to snatch her gold chain.

Luis cabrera of besos latinos restaurant is forced to close over the weekend, and will now operate nights only with a reduced menu and margaritas. Photo / alex burton
Luis Cabrera of Besos Latinos Restaurant is forced to close over the weekend, and will now operate nights only with a reduced menu and margaritas. Photo / Alex Burton

A struggle ensued, and the staffer ran to her apartment building and was chased by her attacker. It stopped only when some residents intervened, he said.

“She is totally distressed and no longer feels safe in Auckland. For my business, just like so many others in hospitality, we are already so short on staff and now this happens,” Cabrera said.

“Even if we survive the pandemic, the rising violent crime and thefts in the city is going to kill us.”

From Tuesday, Cabrera said Besos Latinos will be operating evenings only with a reduced menu of just tapas and a variety of margaritas.

Inner city business owners want to see more police presence in the inner city. Photo / michael craig
Inner city business owners want to see more police presence in the inner city. Photo / Michael Craig

Sunny Kaushal, president of the Crime Prevention Group, said what the Besos Latinos staff member experienced “is not unique”.

“Auckland is facing a crime crisis and the inner city is becoming what New York City was in the 1970s with widespread lawlessness, and criminals not afraid of the police,” said Kaushal.

“The biggest mess this Government has done is putting criminals, drug addicts and the homeless together under one roof in CBD lodges and backpackers in the name of emergency housing which creates a nest for crime.”

Kaushal, whose own bar on Albert St has been burgled a number of times, said “no one feels safe in the city anymore”.

“Business owners don’t feel safe and obviously the staff too don’t feel safe, and the police have continued to fail business owners,” he said.

“Now that the borders are open, tourists will soon become the new targets for these central city criminals.”

Steve armitage, acting ceo heart of the city. Photo / supplied
Steve Armitage, acting CEO Heart of the City. Photo / Supplied

Kaushal is organising a public meeting on rising crime in the inner city on August 29 to address some of these concerns.

Police Auckland City acting area commander Inspector Grae Anderson told the Herald last month that the central city’s uptick in crime was largely due to the area’s changing demographic during the pandemic.

Without tourists and international students, some backpackers and motels were being used for emergency accommodation.

The central city had also become home to some 501s – deportees from Australia named after the policy used to deport them based on character grounds.

Anderson said some of these 501s were dangerous individuals with the potential to influence those without solid support network.

“So you’ve got general residents, you’ve got vulnerable people and you’ve got people who are willing to leverage off those vulnerabilities and that has the recipe to create, shall we say, a perfect storm,” he said.

Anderson said a downtown location formerly used by its MIQ staff will be repurposed as a downtown police base for about 40 officers next month. It wouldn’t be open to the public, but will act as an outpost for patrol staff.

The city centre station on Fort St was closed in 2013.

Steve Armitage, interim chief executive at Heart of the City, said he hoped the police hub would “make a material difference”.

“We know the police are working hard and that they respond as quickly as possible, however we have been consistent in our view that greater police presence is needed,” Armitage said.

“It’s obviously very concerning to hear about any incident of this nature, particularly given the challenges that our business community have been navigating in recent times. Covid and a range of other issues has brought about significant challenges for safety right across Auckland, including the city centre which we need to see addressed. A safe and welcoming city centre is important to workers, residents and visitors alike”.

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