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Restaurants left guessing over reopening

Fish and chip restaurant owners in England keen to start trading again say they are playing a guessing game in the absence of a firm reopening date and guidance from the government.

The government has yet to officially provide a date when restaurants can reopen, committing only to the fact that for hospitality it will be “no earlier than 4th July”. But with only two weeks to go, restaurant owners are seeking clarity on the date, which businesses it will apply to as well as guidance to help get planning for reopening underway.

Eric Snaith, owner of Eric’s Fish Chips, has restaurants in Holt and Thornham in Norfolk and in St Ives, Cambridgeshire. He comments: “We’re gambling at the moment, literally taking a guess and trying to make decisions without knowing what restrictions we've got. I realise the government can’t say what’s definitely going to happen, but I’d rather there were two or three scenarios so we could work towards something. At the moment we are just second-guessing and making a plan that we hope will be allowed.”

Working towards a July 4th opening, Eric is planning a McDonald’s style service where customers are charged takeaway prices and take boxed food back to a table. Eric adds: “We’re not going to go back to plated service until probably early Autumn. We feel it’s a safer plan for us, it means we’re not bringing back staff unnecessarily and it’s safer as there’s no polishing of cutlery, handling pates and generally less interaction with the customers.”

With outside seating at Eric’s sites popular in the summer, another frustration of his is the lack of clarity from the government, adding: “Retail shops are open and yet we’re still not able to use outside seating, it’s a joke. I don’t see any evidence that sitting outside is any more dangerous than going into a shop and interacting with people.

“They’re talking about opening beer gardens, but it’s all a bit vague. We’re not a beer garden but why can’t people sit on our benches? How is that any different?”

John Molnar, owner of The Cod’s Scallops in Nottingham, is concerned too about the lack of guidance, making it difficult to make decisions on how to reopen. He comments: “It is frustrating because I’m looking at investing a good chunk of money in some windbreakers to put between the tables. But how many do I need? Do I place them at two meters or will it be one meter? Will I even need them? You’ve got to take a punt though to get your staff geared up and to get your restaurant ready to reopen.

“I’ve read there are no condiments allowed on the tables, so I’m frantically now buying sachets and trying to find the best way of making them look nicer rather than just a sachet of vinegar on the plate. I’m thinking do we open with disposable cutlery and disposable plates. What’s happening about toilets? Are we going to have one in, one out, or are staff going to have to cleaning them down each time they’ve been used? All these things are constantly going round in your head because you’re second-guessing, but it all needs investment and training and we’re going to need more than a few days notice.

“Knowing how Boris shut us down - there was no real notice on that - I don’t think it will be much different to reopening. I think what he expects is everyone to use their initiative without any firm guidelines so, yes, it is very frustrating.”

Even if restaurants are given the green light to reopen on 4th July, many will still feel it’s too early. Chris Pithey of Linfords Fish & Chips in Market Deeping, Lincolnshire, says he’s more than likely to leave it a week or so before opening the doors to his 30 seater restaurant.

He comments: “If the government does announce 4th July, we probably won’t open for another week. We did the same with the takeaway, stayed closed and it gave us time to see what other people were doing, what’s working and what isn’t. I’d rather do that than open and get it wrong.

“We’ve only got a small 30 seater restaurant and we are predominantly takeaway so we’re not too worried about opening straight away. It would be nice to know a definite date, but I also understand that we don’t want to go back into lockdown.

“The more frustrating thing for me is that we have staff who are furloughed that are itching to get back to work. Also, we’ve had quite a few elderly people coming in and asking when the restaurant is going to open, so seeing them and knowing they want to come back in is hard. Plus it’s not nice seeing the restaurant in darkness.”

For Mister C’s in Selby, North Yorkshire, boss Mark Corbally is looking forward to getting his restaurant open and says staffing is an area he isn’t concerned about.

“When we first reopened the takeaway we said ‘right, we’ll open up as a family’ and we did it with four family members, Denise, Amy, Danny and myself. We’ve brought a few more members of staff back now, but what we’ve realised is that our staffing situation was not right. Whereas before we would have up to 20 staff working the takeaway we’re now doing that same work on pretty much skeleton staff. I see it being the same for when we open the restaurant side.

"If we have to do what Boris says and implement social distancing then we’ll remove half the tables - get it down to 20 seaters - and run it with just a few of our regular staff who we know will be able to run it easily. And they’ll be able to do a better job as they we won't be rushing people in and rushing people out.”

The Scottish government yesterday gave an indicative date of 15th July for the country's tourism and hospitality businesses to reopen and produced clear guidance to help sites through the process.

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