Coronavirus: Hurdles ahead on trade’s path to reopening

Social distancing in bars and restaurants will bring a fresh set of challenges

THE answers to these questions will play a pivotal role in the survival of thousands of hospitality businesses. When will the lockdown measures be eased? How can the trade viably adapt to social distancing challenges – and what are the regulatory obstacles?

There are tentative indications from the Westminster government that pubs in England may be able to resume trading in July with a raft of measures in place to prevent Covid-19 infection.

On this side of the border, it’s expected that the Scottish Government will shortly begin discussions with trade organisations as well as those in the tourism, leisure and events sectors. But, so far, we’re without any roadmap (first minister Nicola Sturgeon is set to publish a ‘route map’ on Thursday May 21) or a provisional relaunch date.

We can only be grateful that Fiona Hyslop, Holyrood’s cabinet secretary for economy, fair work and culture, has scotched fears that lockdown would stay in place until the completion of Scottish Government-funded research about to be undertaken at the University of Stirling. According to a press release issued by the university, the aim is to look at the options for easing restrictions taking into account the potential impact on the emergency services. It’s expected that the work will take six months to complete.

As you’d expect, this news was greeted with dismay. So, it came as a considerable relief when the cabinet secretary announced that the project would not drive decisions as to when, and how, various parts of the economy would reopen.

Nevertheless, two issues remain. If the research has no connection with lockdown easing, why is it being carried out at all? And was it appropriate for the professor leading the work to suggest that: “Whenever restrictions ease, businesses may seek to recoup losses and customers may choose to celebrate by drinking more than usual”?

On any view, that envisages rogue trade operators abandoning their social and legal responsibilities in a drive for cash. It’s just insulting. And as the SLTA President Stephen Montgomery said on Twitter: “If you want to know how to open restaurants and bars, talk to those who own or operate them. You don’t need to talk to a university.”

Whenever the trade is allowed to reboot, it is of course an absolute certainty that social distancing measures will be central to the arrangements.

But social distancing means fewer customers unless additional trading space can be found. Even those with large venues may well find it difficult to drawn in a viable amount of business.

A few days ago I watched an online ‘lifting lockdown’ discussion between the general managers of two independently-owned luxury country hotels.

One of the bosses placed his faith in the use of an app for restaurant diners. Customers would use their smartphones to order and pay for their food and accompanying wine. All communications with management would be through the portal. All of the food courses would be delivered at the one time. This system would strip out four or five of the normal interactions between diners and staff. It would also reduce wage costs.

The hotelier is a person of considerable standing in the industry and he’s come up with a plan that might well make logistical and financial sense. But it’s also one which promises a soulless experience for customers, bereft of the hospitality that separates pubs and restaurants from online food and alcohol deliveries consumed at home.

We’ll no doubt discover in due course whether this sort of social distancing has any traction with the public. And it’s certainly not barking mad, unlike the plan devised by the owners of a three-Michelin star restaurant in Virginia. Vacant dining room space mandated by social distancing will be occupied by life-sized, theatrically-dressed mannequins who’ll be treated by staff as real customers. According to the chef patron: “We’re all craving to gather and see other people right now. They don’t all necessarily need to be real people.”

In a follow-up article I’ll be looking at much less fanciful solutions to the practical social distancing hurdles the trade is set to face – and the regulatory challenges in its path.

Jack Cummins is one of Scotland’s leading licensing lawyers. Every month he writes on licensing law and answers readers’ questions in SLTN.

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