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Today’s outdoor pub and restaurant openings bring cheer for some, but there’s a long road ahead

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With hospitality firms now allowed to serve customers outdoors, the Scottish Licensed Trade Association says there is still anxiety among businesses around how the public will respond – and a dreaded second wave.

For those who have longed to sip a chilled pint somewhere other than their own living room, today is a day to be celebrated.

And for the pub and restaurant owners who have a bit of outdoor space to work with, today marks a starting point on what they hope will be the road to recovery.

For others whose premises are confined to indoors, they will watch on with interest, and perhaps a little envy, to see what level of demand there is for socialising beyond gardens and parks.

With rain never too far away in Scotland, hopes are pinned on the brighter spell forecast.

Clouds gathered around the hospitality industry when pubs and restaurants were forced to shut their doors on March 20, ahead of the nationwide lockdown announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on March 23.

Now a mist of uncertainty lingers, with the future dependent on the continued suppression of the Covid-19 outbreak in Scotland, and, crucially, public confidence.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.

When, on the 18th of June, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed in the Scottish Parliament phase two of the Scottish Government’s route-map out of lockdown, hopes were dashed of an immediate reopening of outdoor spaces at pubs, bars and restaurants.

Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government was seeking further scientific guidance amid fears beer gardens “can be hotspots for transmission” of Covid-19. Monday, July 6 was then announced as the day hospitality businesses could serve customers outdoors, with July 15th earmarked for indoor reopening.

There was further cheer on Thursday last week when the first minister announced that the two-metre physical distancing rule would be reduced to one for certain sectors, including hospitality.

But while having certainty around dates and distancing has been a step forward, Paul Waterson of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (STLA), says many businesses in Scotland face a steep climb in the weeks and months ahead.

Reflecting on the start of the crisis, he said: “To put a bit of context around it, if you go back to when this started people were concerned and just wanted to get through it. Then we got furlough and the Government help [through grants and loans] for some and that helped a bit, and then we started to think, when are we going to reopen and how? We need guidance.

“Now we have the dates, and we seem to have the infection under a bit of control. We understand the problems the Government have faced in dealing with this crisis and in balancing health and business needs.

“The next thing to think about is, if I do open is, am I going to have any customers? If it’s outside areas, how many days are we going to be able to open outside? If I’m opening my outside area, even without social distancing it’s a few tables out the front or the back. Some people have good space, but there are still lots of questions around is it going to be worth it?

“As for when everyone can open [on July 15], there are a significant number now, especially in the hotel and restaurant business, starting to ask if it will be worth it.”

Paul Waterson of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association.

So what does the future bring for Scotland’s pubs and restaurants, with many now facing a dilemma over whether to bring staff back from furlough and open with reduced capacity, or hold out for more certainty?

Paul Waterson says the decision is weighing heavy on many business owners.

He said: “We’re delighted we’re moving forward, but there are fears there. From recent polls, around about 62 to 65% [of the public] are saying they’re not going to rush back in. There will be an element who want to, but is it going to be sustainable when we take staff off furlough? For the hotel side of things, I have a hotel and we’re not looking to get back to full capacity until later next year or possibly 2022.

“For a lot of businesses, the social distancing coming down from two to one metres makes a serious difference. We reckon with two metres you’re losing up to 80% capacity and at one it’s around 40%, so it’s still difficult but just about workable. It doesn’t actually depend on the space you’ve got, it’s more on the shape of the space. If you’ve got a big box without pillars it can work, but if you’ve got a long narrow area and maybe different rooms off of it, that’s when it gets difficult.”

And there is another dark cloud on the horizon – the possibility of a second wave, or even local resurgences of the kind seen in Leicester where lockdown restrictions are back in place with pubs and restaurants banned from reopening, and some towns in southern Scotland where the five-mile travel limit remains due to a spike in numbers.

Paul said: “Certainly in Scotland we’re making headway on the Covid numbers and we don’t want to lose that, and that’s a fear. You see what’s happening in Leicester and that’s something that would be catastrophic.

“The trade is working really hard on mitigating the problems posed by Covid-19. We know loyal customers will go back to places where they feel safe, and some will take extra steps and go above and beyond for them.”

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