Today, 19 July, marks the legal end of almost all coronavirus restrictions in England.
For restaurants, that means no more enforced social distancing inside dining rooms, no limitations on overall capacity nor individual party sizes, and the end of mask-wearing. This is step four of the four-stage roadmap outlined in February, a step that was conditioned on tests set by the government being met.
Though case numbers might be higher than at any point since January, there is no longer a “neutral” scientific consensus on what enacting step four means. However, it’s important to note where there is consensus. That:
1) Vaccines are effective.
2) Delaying step four by one month was a good idea.
3) The link between infection, hospitalisation, severe illness, and death is significantly weaker than it has been at any other point 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 the guests. Many have said they will continue to employ some form of social distancing inside dining rooms, with others committing to wearing masks and requesting that their customers do the same.
The test, trace, and isolate mechanism — one of its principal mitigation strategies — restaurateurs now argue, is hopelessly incompatible with the effects of reopening the economy. Positive cases are moving in only one direction — up — but the risk faced by an increasingly vaccinated population is statistically lower than at any other point in the pandemic. Nevertheless, the terms of that strategy force workers into isolation, no matter a) their vaccination status, and b) whether or not they test positive for the virus after being notified of their contact with a positive case.
This simply compounds the already chronic staffing troubles faced by restaurant owners, who are struggling to recruit from a pool of workers shrunk not just by the pandemic, but by the realities of Brexit which ended the free movement of European workers in January.
Although England has reached the end of the government’s four-stage roadmap, what now feels likely is that this is not the end of the road.
To understand what this means for those in the capital’s restaurants, Eater London spoke to Modern European cafe-bakery-restaurant group owner Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim; Holloway Road Malayasian laksa bar owner Mandy Yin; Queensway’s Normah Abd Hamid of Normah’s; Daniel Morgenthau of the Quality Chop House, Portland, and Clipstone; Keshia Sakarah of Brixton pan-Caribbean restaurant Caribé; and Koya’s John Devitt.
The below interviews have been edited for clarity.
Do you feel like things have been pretty much back to pre-pandemic normal since 17 May? How’s business been for the last couple of months?
Mandy Yin, Sambal Shiok: business is at best around 70/75 percent of pre-pandemic levels. At least I can afford to pay my rent again which was the main headache last year.
Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim, Brut Restaurants: I fear that some operators who have been navigating the difficult waters of Covid and kept their businesses afloat until now will sink in the next few months due to the erratic and unsustainable conditions caused by the compounded impact of 19 July, vaccine roll out, Track-and-Trace, and the now virtually non existent financial support for staff and businesses.
Daniel Morgenthau, Woodhead Restaurants: The last two months have felt far from normal. Indeed, with the exception of the first few weeks of the pandemic, the last two months have been some of the toughest we’ve had during the Covid crisis. I don’t think one can underestimate the collective toll the past 16 months has had on those within the industry...
John Devitt, Koya: It will be a long time before we get back to pre pandemic normal. We still don’t have tourists and culture goers in Soho in particular...It will be a long time before we get our collective mojo back.
What’s the biggest problem for you right now?
Normah Abd Hamid, Normah’s: Whatever income that we make right now go to paying debt: Rental backlog, bills, loan (to avoid extra interest, increase in bank charges), and to try to settle all before end of furlough, which can be like a merry-go-round, because you’ve to deal with your current expenses as well. It’s a real challenge — mentally you need to be strong, resilient, and passionate enough to stay on.
Keshia Sakarah, Caribé: Staffing.
MY: The government’s inconsistent messaging. You cannot define July 19 as “Freedom Day” and give the initial impression that all restrictions will be lifted, when actually masks should still be worn in enclosed spaces and the track and trace system hasn’t been sorted out.
JD: In Soho, no tourists nor cultural visitors to theatre and cinema. Less late nights. We are a volume business and need more volume...
DM: From a business perspective, keeping our restaurants open when such a high percentage of our team is isolating is an immense challenge. Compounded, of course, by the difficulties in recruiting post-Brexit. It’s completely paradoxical what the government is doing. On the one hand, they are letting the virus rip and basically saying we have to ‘live with it.’ But on the other, they are keeping the old apparatus for managing the virus — test and trace — in place, one that is designed to eliminate risk entirely.
Have you had to close yet as a result of a so-called “ping” — where rules state that if one member of staff tests positive or the staff come into contact with a positive test, the whole staff must isolate?
JC-L: Two of our restaurants have had to shut for 10 days now. From 19 July, when life is expected to return to a post crisis normal, we fear all business will be exposed to a greater and more frequent risk of closure.
JD: Not yet — fingers crossed we make it to 16 August for the new rules. So ridiculous the new self-isolation/lateral flow tests rule is five weeks after [restrictions ending]
What do you think needs to change in terms of test, trace, and isolate, especially after ‘full reopening’ today?
MY: It is ridiculous to expect people to isolate for 10 days when they may have come in passing contact with a positive case. A reasonable and practical solution is to tell people that if they’ve been pinged, they need to do a lateral flow test and if it is negative, they can avoid isolating.
KS: I think mask wearing should still be compulsory to encourage people to keep themselves and others safe and to avoid a massive wave of infections amongst the younger age groups who may not have had their vaccine yet.
JC-L: With the current guidelines in place, our restaurants could close for 10 days, every 10 days with huge loss of revenue to the business and remuneration to the staff. A shut restaurant has a typical cash burn rate of £8,000 a week if you tally all the liabilities and overheads together. So a shut restaurant doesn’t just float during enforced closures, it sinks.
If millions of businesses have to close over the next few month, the economy will shut down again which is what the vaccine roll out was supposed to prevent from happening.
JD: New rules for self isolation to be brought in the same time as restrictions easing. If we have to close a restaurant when nobody has Covid its a huge financial loss with no recourse and that needs to change.
Are you concerned for yourself, your staff, society?
MY: We will continue to take precautionary measures, business as usual. All FOH team members will still wear masks and our seating will remain one-metre distanced.
DM: I feel hugely conflicted. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t wish we could fast-forward to a time in which Covid was no longer an imposition on our restaurants... but we’re not going to get there through wishful thinking or turning a blind eye to the science.
JD: We will keep some restrictions in place so that staff remain feeling cared for. We will not go back to completely full capacity until the customers feel comfortable. We will continue to wear masks and ask customers to use hand sanitiser. We just cannot afford to have a restaurant closed with self isolation rules as they are.
Do you think the government is rushing it?
J C-L: Again, where the Prime Minister gets his bright ideas is a mystery, but this upcoming period really really takes the prize for the worst situation ever dreamt up by people in charge of a country.
KS: A little, I think more of a gradual opening up would be better to avoid further future lockdowns.
NAH: Yes, one, because number of cases is still high and two, not everyone has been vaccinated...But we do need to open up our business because how long can the government support last?
DM: The government are embarking on the greatest public health gamble for generations at a time when a large proportion of the population (many of whom work in hospitality) are yet to be offered two vaccines.