Today, July 19, marks the legal end of nearly all coronavirus restrictions in England.
For restaurants, this means no more forced social distancing inside dining rooms, no limitation on overall capacity or the size of individual groups, and an end to mask wearing. This is the fourth step in the four-step roadmap outlined in February, a step that was conditional on compliance with the tests set by the government.
While the number of cases may be higher than at any time since January, there is no longer a “neutral” scientific consensus on what adopting step four means. However, it is important to note where there is consensus. This:
1) Vaccines are effective.
2) Delaying step four by a month was a good idea.
3) The link between hospitalization, serious illness and death is significantly weaker than it was at any other time during the pandemic.
But, while most London restaurateurs believe little will change, they are still being asked to take responsibility for the safety of their staff and guests. Many said they would continue to use some form of social distancing inside dining rooms, with others pledging to wear masks and asking their customers to do the same.
The mechanism of testing, tracing and isolating – one of its main mitigation strategies – now supporting restaurateurs, is hopelessly incompatible with the effects of reopening the economy. Positive cases only evolve in one direction – upward – but the risk facing an increasingly vaccinated population is statistically lower than at any other time in the pandemic. However, the terms of this strategy require workers to self-isolate regardless of a) their immunization status and b) whether or not they test positive for the virus after being informed of their contact with a positive case.
This only compounds the already chronic staffing issues facing restaurateurs, who are struggling to recruit from a pool of workers shrunk not only by the pandemic, but by the realities of Brexit which ended free movement. European workers in January.
Although England has reached the end of the government’s four-step roadmap, what now seems likely is that it is not the end of the road.
To understand what this means for restaurants in the capital, Eater London spoke to Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim, owner of a group of modern European coffee shops, bakeries and restaurants. Mandy Yin, owner of Malaysian laksa bar Holloway Road; Normah Abd Hamid of Queensway of Normah; Daniel Morgenthau of Quality Chop House, Portland and Clipstone; Keshia Sakarah from the Pan-Caribbean restaurant in Brixton Caribé; and John Devitt of Koya.
The interviews below have been edited for clarity.
Do you feel like things have pretty much returned to pre-pandemic normal since May 17? How has business been in recent months?
Mandy Yin, Shiok Sambal: business is at best around 70/75% of pre-pandemic levels. At least I can afford to pay my rent again, which was the biggest headache last year.
Jérémie Cometto-Lingenheim, Raw Restaurants: I fear that some operators who have navigated the difficult waters of Covid and have kept their businesses afloat so far will sink in the coming months due to the erratic and unsustainable conditions caused by the aggravated impact of July 19, the deployment vaccine, Track-and-Trace, and the now almost non-existent financial support for staff and businesses.
Daniel Morgenthau, restaurants Woodhead : The past two months have been far from normal. Indeed, with the exception of the first weeks of the pandemic, the last two months have been among the most difficult we have had during the Covid crisis. I don’t think we can underestimate the collective impact that the last 16 months have had on those of the industry …
John Devitt, Koya: It will be a long time before we get back to pre-pandemic normalcy. We still do not have tourists and culture lovers in Soho in particular… It will be a long time before we find our collective mojo again.
What’s the biggest problem for you right now?
Normah Abd Hamid, de Normah: Whatever income we are earning now, it is used to pay off the debt: arrears of rent, bills, loan (to avoid additional interest, increase in bank charges), and try to settle it all before the end of the leave, this which can be like a round merry-go-round because you also have to deal with your daily expenses. It’s a real challenge – mentally you have to be strong enough, resilient and passionate enough to stay.
Keshia Sakarah, Caribé : Recruitment.
MA: The government’s inconsistent messages. You cannot define July 19 as “Freedom Day” and give the initial impression that all restrictions will be lifted, when in reality, masks still have to be worn in confined spaces and the tracking and tracing system has not been addressed.
JD: In Soho, no tourists or cultural visitors to the theater and cinema. Fewer late nights. We are a volume business and need more volume …
DM : From a business standpoint, keeping our restaurants open when such a high percentage of our team is in isolation is a huge challenge. Worsened, of course, by post-Brexit recruitment difficulties. It is completely paradoxical what the government is doing. On the one hand, they let the virus tear itself apart and basically say we have to ‘live with it’. But on the other hand, they keep the old virus-handling apparatus – test and trace – in place, designed to eliminate the risk entirely.
Have you ever had to shut down as a result of a so called ‘ping’ – where the rules state that if a staff member tests positive or staff comes in contact with a positive test all staff should self-isolate ?
JC-L : Two of our restaurants had to close for 10 days. From July 19, when life is expected to return to normal after the crisis, we fear that all businesses may be at greater and more frequent risk of shutdowns.
JD : Not yet – fingers crossed, it’s August 16 for the new rules. So ridiculous that the new rule for self-isolation / lateral flow testing is five weeks after [restrictions ending]
What do you think needs to change in terms of testing, tracing and isolation, especially after today’s “full reopening”?
MA: It is ludicrous to expect people to self-isolate for 10 days when they may have come in contact with a positive case. A reasonable and practical solution is to tell people that if they have received a ping they should do a lateral flow test and if it is negative they can avoid self-isolation.
KS: I think wearing a mask should always be mandatory to encourage people to protect themselves and others and to avoid a massive wave of infections among the younger age groups who may not yet have received their vaccine.
JC-L : With the current guidelines in place, our restaurants could close for 10 days, every 10 days, with huge losses in revenue for the business and compensation for staff. A closed restaurant has a typical silver consumption rate of £ 8,000 per week if you add up all liabilities and overheads. So a closed restaurant doesn’t just float during forced closings, it sinks.
If millions of businesses are to shut down in the next few months, the economy will shut down again, which the vaccine rollout was supposed to prevent from happening.
JD : New self-isolation rules will be introduced along with the relaxation of restrictions. If we are to close a restaurant when no one has Covid, it is a huge financial loss without recourse and that must change.
Are you concerned with yourself, your staff, the company?
MA: We will continue to take precautionary measures as usual. All members of the FOH team will always wear masks and our seats will stay one meter apart.
DM : I feel a lot of conflict. There isn’t a day that I don’t wish we could move quickly to a time when Covid was no longer a tax on our restaurants … but we won’t get there by thinking of wishful thinking or transforming one eyes closed on science.
JD : We will keep some restrictions in place so that staff continue to feel taken care of. We will not be returning to full capacity until customers feel comfortable. We will continue to wear masks and ask customers to use hand sanitizer. We just can’t afford to shut down a restaurant with self-isolation rules as they are.
Do you think the government is rushing?
JCL: Once again, where the Prime Minister pulls his brilliant ideas is a mystery, but this coming period truly wins the prize for the worst situation ever imagined by a country’s officials.
KS: A bit, I think a more gradual opening would be better to avoid further containment in the future.
NAH: Yes, one, because the number of cases is still high and two, not everyone has been vaccinated… But we have to open our business because how long can government support last?
DM : The government is embarking on the biggest public health gamble in generations at a time when a large part of the population (many of whom work in the hotel industry) are yet to be offered two vaccines.