Restaurants face uncertain future as end of lockdown looms large

Linda J. Dodson

Across China, where the coronavirus pandemic first erupted, restaurants have started opening their doors to diners again following months under lockdown.

Tables have been removed to keep customers seated at least two metres apart, protective face masks have become mandatory for staff and diners’ hands are sprayed with sanitiser before they enter. Some restaurants are even forcing customers to undergo a temperature check before they are allowed in.

With social distancing measures in the UK expected to be in place for at least the rest of the year, the likelihood of British restaurants operating under a similar scenario now looks increasingly likely. In the UK, pubs, restaurants and bars are expected to be among the last to reopen fully under the Government’s easing of lockdown restrictions, with some operators predicting this could happen as late as next year.

But rather than getting ready to reopen in eager anticipation, many businesses are instead paralysed with fear over what the next phase will bring. “Most firms have probably got their head around this period; they’re closed and the Government is paying their staffs’ salaries,” says Will Beckett, co-founder of steak chain Hawksmoor.

“Everybody is terrified of the next bit. The possibility that people lose money at a faster rate than when they’ve been mandated to close is pretty high.”

For an industry which had traditionally survived on wafer-thin margins while balancing significant overheads, the prospect of opening at reduced capacity and with even more costs looks challenging, if not impossible.

Firms will have to grapple with not only the normal everyday costs of staffing, rents and food, but will also need to fork out extra on cleaning products and PPE equipment for their staff – if they can get hold of it. At the same time, trade is expected to be between 20 to 50pc lower than it was prior to the crisis as a combination of social distancing and consumer caution is likely to leave many tables empty or removed completely.

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