Are you ready for reopening?

There’s a number of factors for operators to consider ahead of restarting indoor operations, writes health and safety specialist Kevin Clancy

HOSPITALITY businesses in Scotland are preparing to properly welcome customers back to their premises for the first time since the lockdown was introduced in March, with outdoor drinking having resumed at the beginning of last week and indoor hospitality set to return from Wednesday (July 15), subject to physical distancing rules and public health advice.

Although guidance has been issued by the Scottish Government, there is still some anxiety around how bars, pubs and restaurants should operate. The onus is being placed on proprietors to work out how best the guidance should be translated and applied to their premises, depending on the nature of the business. This raises very difficult questions around risk assessment, health and safety, insurance, data protection, and (in the worst-case scenario) criminal and civil liability should things go wrong.

In addition to complying with COVID-19 risk assessments and control measures, consulting employees, introducing health and safety precautions, and ensuring that any novel or creative solutions remain covered by insurance policies, it is equally important to ensure compliance with the terms of premises licences. For example, we have recently been made aware of licensing standards officers contacting clients to ensure that details of the designated premises manager remain up to date, which may not be guaranteed as a consequence of furlough and employees moving on since March.

Kevin Clancy is a senior associate in Shepherd and Wedderburn’s commercial disputes team and a licensing and health and safety specialist

The imposition of the two-metre social distancing precaution would almost certainly have made reopening economically unviable for many restaurants, leaving only a handful of tables available for service. The recently announced ‘one-metre-plus’ mitigation offers room for some optimism, yet this will nevertheless present practical and financial challenges for the hospitality sector.

A crucial element to any successful reopening will be improved and increased staff training (taking into account individual health characteristics). Employees need to have confidence in their place of work; they should not only understand the new procedures but also ensure these are properly implemented on a daily basis. Staff should receive induction training upon returning to the workplace, with regular refreshers as required.

Hospitality businesses must make clear to staff that they should phone in sick if they feel ill or under the weather – this is essential in order to keep the risk of COVID-19 transmission as low as possible. Any staff member whose health is in doubt should be sent home, and employers should have a contingency plan for calling on additional staff as necessary. Businesses may consider implementing daily temperature testing for staff on arrival and encourage alternatives to using public transport for the commute to work, where feasible.

Hospitality groups ought to implement short-term plans to minimise the risk of cross-infection between premises, especially where employees typically work across a number of venues. If staff work on a rota system, then starting times could be staggered and thought should be given to creating teams to consistently work the same shift patterns, further reducing the risk of the spread of infection.

Restaurants, bars, pubs and cafés will need to become accustomed to mandating excellent hygiene practices, including regular hand washing, using hand sanitiser, wearing masks, cleaning surfaces more frequently and increased deep cleaning. They should stagger reservation times to reduce crowding and consider implementing a one-way system throughout the premises, if possible. Thought should also be given to spacing tables and chairs with sufficient gaps to allow safe passing places.

Adhering to the Scottish Government’s Test and Protect contact tracing approach will be more challenging when it comes to customers. Hospitality businesses will need to find a system that allows them to identify on what date and at which time a customer (or a large group) visited and how they can be contacted. Larger premises might also note the customer’s table number. The current guidance refers to gathering this customer information as a ‘voluntary’ practice. However, failure to do so undermines the aim of keeping the community safe, in which customers also have a role to play. It will be up to businesses to decide what their approach should be if a customer refuses to provide contact information – the decision may be taken to refuse admission. Local establishments may find it helpful to be able to share real time information (by way of instant messaging) with each other regarding customers who have already been turned away from one venue for coronavirus-related reasons. Of course, using an electronic system to collect and gather customer data introduces a new level of data protection risk, and businesses that do so will need to register with the Information Commissioner’s Office.

In any crisis (and a COVID-positive incident will fall into that category) customers will appreciate quick, decisive and honest communication. Although government statistics show the R-value (the average number of people an infected person passes the disease onto) is falling, it is likely that some retailers or establishments will need to react to a COVID-19 incident, as we have seen in England. Businesses will need to prepare staff to respond to a spike in queries from customers under such circumstances. It would also be wise to consider preparing template statements for publication on social media platforms to keep ahead of the ‘bad news’.

The return to trade will be unpredictable and suppliers may find it challenging to guarantee short-notice orders for ingredients and other supplies, so businesses must plan ahead. Offering a reduced menu may assist with food costs.

In the medium term, online deliveries may still prove popular with customers who are uncomfortable dining out. Any business offering a delivery service must ensure it complies with regulations around delivery times and the sale of age-restricted products, especially where alcohol is concerned.

Addressing these issues fully and ahead of time will help hospitality businesses mitigate risk and create a safer, potentially more pleasant environment for customers, who may initially feel apprehensive as the sector reopens for business.

Kevin Clancy is a senior associate in Shepherd and Wedderburn’s commercial disputes team and a licensing and health and safety specialist.