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‘That’s Someone’s Rent’: London Restaurants React to New Coronavirus Restrictions

Early closing means lost sittings for restaurants, lost shifts for staff, and bottlenecks on public transport

Moro, one of London’s best restaurants, with its shutters down during COVID-19; the image is in black and white Michaël Protin/Eater London

From 24 September, London restaurants, pubs, bars, and cafes will have to close at 10 p.m.

On Monday 21 September, Boris Johnson’s government once again deployed its media playbook of leaking stringent coronavirus lockdown measures; placing blame on people who were doing exactly what the government told them to do; and putting out new restrictions without fully explaining how, by whom, and why they are being enforced. Restaurants were left to second-guess what it is about their operations that makes a 10p.m. curfew effective against a clock-agnostic virus.

Without rationale, the curfew — and attendant restriction which makes table service mandatory — appeared little more than a symbolic act that will cost restaurants serious money while having a negligible effect on COVID-19 transmission. While a widely shared pie chart showing that only 5 percent of documented COVID infections in week 37 of 2020 came from a restaurant setting has fuelled industry anger, the mathematics are not zero sum and drawing straight parallels between hospitality and care homes is overly simplistic. Drawing parallels between a government that told the nation to “eat out to help out” and a government that is now telling hospitality venues to shut to control the virus, is another matter altogether.

Much of the restaurant world’s initial reaction centred on this illogic:

Then prime minister Boris Johnson elaborated, sort of. Closing at 10 p.m. means locking up, not last orders; takeaways will have to close too, but deliveries can continue; the police will be enforcing the measures — though how, and where, and with what proportionality remain open questions — and they could last for six months. He also offered a scientific explanation: “the spread of the disease does tend to happen later at night after more alcohol has been consumed.” He offered no citation for this claim.

Closing at 10 p.m. doesn’t just knock thirty minutes or an hour off service. As Emma Underwood, general manager at Darby’s in Nine Elms explains, “closing at 10 means that we lose a whole sitting, which is a massive loss of covers (it essentially means we would struggle to accommodate bookings from 830 onwards, which for us is our peak time).” With restaurants already limited in capacity by social distancing rules, a further loss of revenue puts even more financial strain on businesses who are yet to be offered a workable, policy-based solution on both rent and staffing costs. That 8:30 p.m. cut-off will leave some restaurants trading at just 25 percent capacity, which for many will not be survivable.

Adejoké Bakare, who has just opened Chishuru in Brixton Market, shares Underwood’s second key concern: the anxiety, both social and economic, that these measures and their enforcement place on restaurant workers. Bakare says that “there is a bit of anxiety for us as operators about how diners will behave... The market management team are putting extra measures in place to manage people just walking through the market.” Underwood, meanwhile, emphasises that “the earlier closing means an earlier finish, which for the hourly staff is a huge loss. It can mean the difference of up to £500 / month, which is someone’s rent.” The stress of “trying to explain to the guests that we can’t serve them past that time is a further worry,” and one that she feels is an unfair burden on both her staff and on guests who have to keep up with rapidly changing legislation.

Closing and then reopening, while immeasurably difficult for restaurants, was possible for many thanks to the coronavirus job retention scheme, lease forfeiture moratorium, and coronavirus business loans — even if all three of those had their problems. Reopening with social distancing in place, limiting revenue, was even more difficult, but outdoor dining and the protection of the furlough scheme and lease forfeiture moratorium offered some breathing space. But now, restaurants must lose even more revenue, and mitigating it either involves opening earlier — which leads to questions about why 5 p.m. — 6 p.m. is more or less viral than 10 p.m. — 11 p.m. — or cutting shifts, which leaves workers without an income.

Extending the 10 p.m. restriction to takeaways will also have further knock-on effects that the government has either not thought through or chosen to ignore. Late-night food business doesn’t just come from nowhere — shift workers, restaurant workers themselves, medical staff, and many public sector employees will now not have a quick meal available to them after 10 p.m.

The businesses which they might have visited, the chicken shops, kebab shops, burger bars, and countless other cuisines woven into London’s late night fabric, are small businesses, frequently run by people of colour, whose late night trade is the core of their business. Businesses will wait and see if there are discrepancies in enforcement, and where those discrepancies fall. Meanwhile, a straight-line curfew will create bottlenecks in busy areas, on public and private transport, forcing people into conditions less socially distanced than the restaurants they are being told to vacate.

For Normah Abd Hamid, who owns outstanding Malaysian cafe Normah’s in Queensway, the news is perplexing, knocking consumer confidence after raising it through the Eat Out to Help Out initiative. She is wary of the extent of the government’s willingness to support the sector financially, and sees the curfew as a cover for what is really needed: “for everyone to get tested, find where the source is coming from.” She is sceptical that the government will bring in the financial measures needed to mitigate the impact of the curfew: “How much can gov support the sector. At the end of the day the Treasury is going to exhaust its fund, tax will be increased, business in debt.”

An extension to the furlough scheme — even a targeted one for hospitality businesses — would ease many of the fears about money and employment that all three of Abd Hamid, Underwood and Bakare document. It would allow restaurants to furlough workers no longer able to work shifts lost to the curfew, and allow the workers to have an income until measures are lifted. But when pressed on the financial measures behind the restrictions, prime minister Boris Johnson refused to answer on whether the government would extend furlough. With these measures potentially lasting six months, the end of October may see even more restaurant, pub, and bar workers at risk of unemployment than first feared without it.

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