JULY 4 may not be a traditional British celebration, but this year we will be having our very own Independence Day, thanks to a significant easing of the coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
The changes, announced by Boris Johnson, mean that pubs and restaurants can open, and the public can stay in hotels, bed and breakfast premises and campsites. Cinemas and theme parks, too, will throw open their doors for the first time in over three months and we can even have that long-anticipated post-lockdown haircut.
It is no wonder British businesses have greeted the news with immense excitement. ‘This has been an incredibly difficult time, but there is now some light at the end of the tunnel,’ says Mike Cherry, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) national chairman. ‘Thousands of restaurants, hairdressers, pubs, hotels and campsites will be breathing a huge sigh of relief.’
But although these businesses can reopen, there will still be restrictions on how they operate, and they must adhere to strict rules around distancing and cleaning. This will bring an increased burden for already cash-strapped businesses, with more than one in four FSB members saying reopening costs are in excess of £1,000.
For small businesses, reopening success will depend on creative solutions, sensible accounting and often keeping a side business going while waiting for customers to regain their confidence. Here’s how to make it work:
Get to grips with the guidance
The announcement from government drops the distance requirements for those in shops, schools, hotels and restaurants from two metres to ‘one metre plus’. That means that tables in restaurants and pubs can be one metre apart, as long as other mitigating measures are taken such as avoiding face-to-face seating, installing protective screens and providing additional hand sanitiser.
Mike, at the FSB, says that the new rules will be particularly important for small businesses.
‘Small businesses tend to be in small premises. They don’t have wide aisles or big car parks to help them manage queues, so the two-metre rule has proven to be especially prohibitive.’
In order to reopen, businesses must prove they are Covid-safe, which usually involves doing a risk assessment. There are guidelines on how to do this on the gov.uk website, including reconfiguring tables, cleaning toilets and putting up screens.
‘If you have five or more employees you’ll need to do a Covid-19 risk assessment,’ says James Lintern, co-founder of staff management software provider RotaCloud. ‘A risk assessment will give you a better idea of the specific changes you’ll need to make within your business before you can reopen. And if you have less than five employees, while it’s not a legal requirement, it’s still a good idea to do one anyway. Make sure your risk assessment is clearly displayed. This should help reassure both staff and customers. It’s also vitally important that you keep abreast of changing regulations.’
Familiarising yourself with the guidelines also means understanding other changes mentioned by the Prime Minister, including the need to take the names and contact details of those visiting your establishment. You must store the details safely in case you need to contact people in the event that a visitor tests positive. The details must be held in accordance with data protection guidelines, which can be daunting.
Reservation systems such as OpenTable allow hospitality businesses to do this as reservations are made. If you’re worried about your compliance with data protection rules, the Information Commissioner’s Office is available at ico.org.uk.
Make the space
Making space for socially distanced hospitality may be tricky, but there are creative solutions available, says Ross Kirton, from Colliers International, who is involved in negotiations between landlords and tenants for extra space to be made available using little used areas of properties or neighbouring sites as extra hospitality space.
Pubs and restaurants will be able to use car parks and other outdoor spaces to serve customers without any change to their licences, and could also spill into the street if they can get permission. The government has made it easier for restaurants and pubs to get outdoor licences, with a cost of under £100 for an application to put tables onto the street, and a faster decision-making process.
Ross suggests that negotiations with landlords could involve opening up more space on a basis that rent is paid on turnover from that space, to ensure that everyone feels they are getting a fair deal. ‘Both landlords and tenants need to accept that these are difficult times,’ he says.
There may be extra space needs too, for example a space for staff to change safely from outdoor clothes into indoor uniform to ensure that the virus is not carried into the restaurant on the clothes they travel in on.
In some businesses, even the new guidance of ‘one metre plus’ will reduce the number of people who can be in a space. Screening solutions can help to keep everyone safe. Simon Campbell, from interior fit-out specialist Portview, is working with companies to ensure they are ready to reopen. ‘Screening and other measures will give customers confidence,’ he says, adding that less visible safety measures, such as High-Efficiency Particulate Air filters can also improve safety while not distracting from the ambiance of a space.
Making your staff feel safe and welcome will be key to getting the reopening strategy right, says Russell Nathan, senior partner at accountancy firm HW Fisher.
James from RotaCloud says that staff will need to be retrained so that everyone is kept safe, as social distancing is not intuitive. ‘Staff will need retraining to work in your “new normal” business. They will need to social distance from both customers and each other. There will be new processes that they’ll need to learn and understand. They may need to be instructed on when, or where, to wear PPE and there will be enhanced cleaning schedules that will need to be adhered to, too. There are a lot of new things to get used to, so ensuring that any new procedures are crystal clear, even before they get back into their workplace, will help make staff feel safer and more confident in returning to work.’
Give it time
It’s natural to hope that everything will go back to normal immediately, but Russell at HW Fisher says that many businesses will find that they need to run both their new business and a ‘Covid pivot’ business, such as a takeaway option, for some time, with some customers not yet ready to return and others now accustomed to more takeaway options. ‘Businesses will need to continue to be innovative,’ he says. He adds that many restaurants have offered loyal customers vouchers for meals at a reduced rate, which will help tempt people back, and this strategy may still work if still offered now.
Ross at Colliers, warns that many people may be unwilling to head out yet. ‘Many people aren’t ready to return. We’ve moved from FOMO − fear of missing out − to FOGO − fear of going out,’ he says. ‘It may take time.’
Simon Campbell, managing director of Portview, an interior fit-out specialist helping firms to reopen safely
Russell Nathan, senior partner at accountancy firm HW Fisher
James Lintern, co-founder of RotaCloud, a staff management software provider that specialises in the hospitality industry
Ross Kirton, head of UK Leisure at commercial property group Colliers International
Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB)
‘We’ll still be running at a loss — but it will be a smaller one’
‘I’m excited and terrified,’ confesses Peter Kinsella, when discussing the reopening of his two Catalan restaurants — Lunya and Lunyalita — in Liverpool.
Lockdown has cost him and his wife Elaine one restaurant in Manchester, which they have had to permanently close to save the others.
‘With the restrictions we will still run at a loss, but it will be a smaller one,’ he says. ‘It is sustainable.’ He calculates that his restaurants had 148 covers before social distancing, which would have decreased to 50 on a two-metre distancing measure and 70 under the one-metre rule.
During lockdown, they ramped up their deli and online ordering business, including food to go. Peter says he plans to continue to run this side of the business, though it will be tricky as ‘at the moment all our tables are used for packing’.
Asked whether he thinks that customers are ready to return to restaurant dining, he says he believes that the nation is split. ‘There’s a generation in their forties and fifties with older parents who are really mindful of keeping them safe,’ he says. ‘I know that’s how I feel. We’ll be keeping the two-metre rule in some areas,’ he says. ‘Not everyone will feel that one metre is safe.’ lunya.co.uk
‘I’m even looking forward to seeing customers I don’t like!’
Fiona Hornsby, pictured with staff, runs the The Bridewell pub in Liverpool. When it reopens, she’ll be making use of its ultimate social distancing tool: five former prison cells. ‘The pub is an old lock-up,’ she explains. ‘That’s going to make it easier to keep people apart.’
In the past few weeks, her team have been doing everything possible to make the pub Covid-safe. This includes hiring a risk assessment team, opening extra space upstairs so that tables can be spaced out further, and changing the toilet and bar area.
The company has been doing the same for a new pub in the city that they are planning to open soon — the Denbigh Castle. ‘We have to keep everyone safe,’ she says. ‘We have some older customers we must look after.’
They have taken advantage of government business schemes, but Fiona says more support would be nice. ‘The landlord has been understanding, but it has been expensive,’ she says, adding that she has had to pour away many pints of beer.
Because breweries have only just started brewing again, she says it’s been hard to get hold of everything before opening, but beer deliveries have now restarted. ‘I just can’t wait,’ she says. ‘I am even looking forward to seeing customers we don’t like! I’m a social person and it’s been hard getting up with nothing to do.’ facebook.com/pg/thebridewell
‘I am optimistic — we are doing everything we can’
Andrew Stembridge is the executive director of Iconic Luxury Hotels, which owns a raft of well-known boutique hotels, including Chewton Glen in the New Forest, and 11 Cadogan Gardens in London.
‘Most have closed over lockdown, but we’ve had some NHS workers in 11 Cadogan Gardens all the way through,’ Andrew says. ‘We’ve really had no income and that’s been the biggest challenge.’ The company has furloughed some staff but not all.
‘It’s amazing what you still have to do regarding running taps and keeping heating on,’ he says. The company reopened bookings before the government’s announcement that there would be a July 4 reopening, and says there has been more interest in out-of-town properties than in London. ‘I guess lots of people want to get away to the country at the moment,’ he adds.
However, he believes that a new pattern of some workers wanting to commute weekly into the capital to avoid repeated exposure on public transport could lead to increased bookings in the coming weeks.
The company has put in many new measures to keep customers and staff safe. These have included face masks for staff and new amenity kits with hand sanitiser and face wipes as well as a sanitising electrostatic fogger.
Andrew says there is a difficult balance to strike between keeping people safe and creating a sterile atmosphere. ‘This is a hospitality business,’ he says. ‘You don’t want everything to smell of disinfectant.’
While the reopening, in line with the guidelines, brings increased cost for the company, Andrew says he does not feel that this can be passed on to customers in this climate so the company will shoulder the burden. ‘I’m optimistic,’ he says. ‘Not about the economy, but about our reopening. You have to make the best of a bad situation and we are doing everything we can.’ iconicluxuryhotels.com