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July Opening Date for ‘Some’ Restaurants Means Almost Nothing to Most Restaurants

The government has published its reopening strategy; there is little in it to reassure the majority of restaurants that they’ll be allowed to open even by July

Michaël Protin/Eater London

The U.K. government’s new published strategy on how it proposes to reopen society through COVID-19 confirms that there is no chance restaurants or other hospitality businesses will reopen for dine-in service before Saturday 4 July. There is little in it to reassure the majority of restaurants, both on whether they’ll even be able to open then, and how they would be able to do so. Much remains conditional on what happens as a result of the new, incremental lockdown lifting measures, meaning that plans could continue to be modified unpredictably. Restaurants remain in a state of uncertainty.

Perhaps the most revealing passage in the guidance for restaurants is under the government’s “step three”, which will come into place no earlier than 4 July. It states here its ambition to permit the opening of some hospitality businesses. Crucially, it adds: “Some venues which are, by design, crowded and where it may prove difficult to enact distancing may still not be able to re-open safely at this point, or may be able to open safely only in part.” Restaurants are, by design, crowded — they are environments in which it is almost impossible to enact social distancing thanks to their typical layout and standard mode of operation: Compact venues; standing and sitting at close quarters; regular, proximate interaction between staff and customer; handling and sharing of cutlery, crockery, and glassware.

Before then, and in phase one of the government’s “roadmap to lift restrictions step-by-step” — in which it encourages people to return to work in areas such as food production, construction, and manufacturing — hospitality and nonessential retail are included as the “only exceptions”: the two named sectors which must remain closed.

After which, “step two” of the restriction lifting plan will include the reopening of some non-essential retail businesses in phases from the 1 June, but will depend on the government’s five key tests — NHS capacity, falling daily deaths, rate of infection below 1, sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE), no risk of overwhelming the NHS with a second spike — justifying any changes, and be warranted by the alert level at the time. During this phase, restaurants must remain closed because of the “higher” risk of transmission in those environments.

Any changes to the plans between now and July will be conditioned on fresh risk assessments. The government says that its “current planning assumption” is that its “step three” will come into place “no earlier” than 4 July, and will be subject once more to the five tests justifying any new measures, plus taking into account further detailed scientific advice. It is not known why the document states 4 July, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson last night used 1 July as a provisional date for that set of measures to potentially come into place.

Per the document, the ambition at step three — the last stage as set out — is to open at least some of the last remaining businesses and premises forced to close. This includes hospitality — defined in the government’s document as “food service providers, pubs and accommodation.” (Nowhere in the document, is there a specific reference to restaurants or cafes.) Those that do reopen will have to meet the government’s new “COVID-19 Secure guidelines”, which involves individuals keeping distance from people outside their household, a continuation of the two metre distance measure, washing hands, faces, and clothes as regularly as possible, and limiting the number of people that any individual comes into contact with regularly.

Taking all of that into consideration, the most important thing now for restaurants is to learn what the government plans to put in place to ensure business and worker protection while they are forced to remain closed and while the current “roadmap” for reopening remains comparatively uncertain. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is expected to provide further updates on plans to phase out the coronavirus job retention scheme (CJRS) this week, while the hospitality industry continues to press for a long-term rent break, in addition to a whole suite of measures designed to mitigate the impact on the industry for the rest of the year.

More soon.

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