Covid rules leave pubs and restaurants in England fearing grand interior reopening
Before the pandemic, the small Sicilian restaurant Franzina Trattoria was popular with locals in South London for its long communal tables. Customers thronged and shared food with people they had never met. Two guests, who were complete strangers, ended up getting married.
But as owner Stefania Taormina and her husband Pietro Franz prepare to welcome the first guests since December at their 4-meter-wide restaurant in Brixton on Monday, Taormina fears they may not return.
“We don’t see a lot of bookings inside [and] it’s a little scary. We think people think differently now and maybe sharing tables is a problem, ”she said.
To comply with Covid-19 restrictions for hotel businesses in England when the government allows them to open indoors from Monday, Taormina has reduced the number of guests seated in the restaurant from 55 to 14 and has spent £ 1000 on plastic dividers to break down tables. .
The saving grace has been the six tables for two on the restaurant’s outdoor patio, which have been booked at any time of the day since restrictions on al fresco dining and drink were lifted at the end of the month. ‘April. “We’re pretty much breaking away from the open terrace,” she said. “I think people still prefer to go outside.”
The pandemic has left the hospitality industry facing a crisis of historic proportions. Since the pandemic struck, UKHospitality, the trade body, estimates that the UK sector lost £ 80.8bn in sales between April 2020 and March, compared to the previous 12-month period, amounting to £ 9m. pounds per hour.
Over 8,500 of the UK’s 115,100 approved establishments have gone out of business. And only a third of operators have the outdoor space that allowed them to reopen since the government allowed alfresco dining from April 12.
Even as the others prepare to open indoors in England’s biggest easing of restrictions since the lockdown was imposed in January, many pub and restaurant owners fear the remaining Covid rules – waiter service only to tables that need to be at least 1m apart, with a limit of six people from no more than two households – will make most establishments unprofitable.
“The vast majority of our ads will be marketed on May 17th [but] I expect that we will continue to trade at levels where we will suffer a loss, ”said Andy Spencer, managing director of Punch Pubs, which owns 1,100 establishments. He said the pubs would operate at half their usual capacity and that the restrictions were “difficult, time consuming and expensive”.
The key to making most pubs and restaurants profitable is removing all social distancing rules, and many owners have been supported by Boris Johnson’s recent comments. Earlier this week, the British Prime Minister raised the possibility that all restrictions could be lifted over the summer.
But on Friday Johnson warned that the next state of England’s lockdown easing plans due on June 21 – when all existing rules are set to disappear – may have to be delayed due to an increase in infections. caused by the emergence of a variant of Covid-19. first detected in India.
The opening with significant restrictions in place presented other challenges, including the need to train staff who have been on leave for months.
Zoe Bowley, general manager of PizzaExpress, said the chain’s 6,000 employees had completed a week of “total immersion” training, both in hygiene measures and in service. “Some of our team, other than a small gap in November, haven’t worked for a year,” she said.
The sector is also facing a labor shortage with a loss of experienced and skilled staff, partly due to the pandemic and partly due to Brexit, with EU workers returning to their home countries. origin.
This will increase the pressure on employees facing customers for the first time in months. “They are rusty after a year’s leave and are returning to jobs where they will have to take on other roles because there are not enough staff to cope,” warned Mark Lewis, general manager of the association. Hospitality Action.
Another common fear is annoying customers by insisting they comply with Covid regulations, such as checking in with the test and trace app and wearing a mask while on the go.
Even though the reopening goes as planned, the absence of tourists and foreign commuters for at least part of the summer – with international travel still very limited and office staff encouraged to continue working from home until after. at least end of June – is expected to leave many cities. – establishments in the center running out of customers.
“We are very dependent on the attendance of tourists who shop on Oxford Street and hotel guests, so until they return in large numbers, normalcy will not be restored,” said Anna Sebastian , manager of the Artesian bar at The Langham hotel in London.
While there is a positive in emerging from the crisis, the pandemic has forced the industry to accelerate the adoption of technologies that have improved productivity: payment and ordering applications allow operators to turn tables faster and to employ fewer staff.
Customers using apps also tend to spend more per person, having had more time to browse the menu and the ability to order as they please, according to several pub and restaurant owners.
But Bowley cautioned that there was a “right balance” to be struck to ensure that an industry built on personal service doesn’t become “faceless” just like it needs customers to return.
Technology aside, Spencer said he worries that as long as sports and live music don’t restart and patrons can’t stand in crowded bars, the pub experience will be “sanitized.” “We have eliminated a large part of the soul. . . and a lot of things that make the pub really special, ”he says.
It’s the same pre-Covid friendliness that Taormina fears will be lost at Franzina Trattoria. “It was a joy for me because you would see people that you had never seen in your life start drinking together and talking about food together and sometimes they would go out afterwards. . . I’m afraid it won’t happen again. “
Additional reporting by Oliver Barnes