A north-east publican feels the industry is “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” ahead of reopening – as concern over the sustainability of trade for bars, cafes and restaurants under the Scottish Government’s Covid rules remains ahead of reopening.
A row between the hospitality sector and ministers broke out last week as the full scope of the guidance set out for them to safely open up again became clear.
On paper, nothing has changed: the trade will still have an exemption to the standard 6.5ft (two metres) physical distancing requirement, allowing for only 3.3ft (a metre) of space.
But many insiders have hit out at a change in interpretation of the rules, which significantly reduces capacity in venues.
His tavern has been given the green light to open for outdoor drinking, but he’s held off on reopening in order to comply with the stringent requirements and staff training.
He also claims it would be “almost impossible” to comply with the guidance on table arrangements if they were to serve food.
“Businesses will try and adapt, but it will be very difficult to do so, especially for smaller indoor dining establishments trying to maintain metre social distancing between different households.
“What are they expected to do? At best maybe 20-30% of customers are from the same household and that’s at a push, so really there’s no way around this.
“I don’t feel very optimistic.
“This is a terrible situation the hospitality industry is in, like having a gun held to our heads waiting for the trigger to be pulled.
“Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”
Before the latest lockdown, traders – overseen by local environmental health officials – had been allowing for the distance between customers’ faces, allowing for the use of off-the-shelf picnic benches and outdoor furniture.
However, they now claim safety chiefs are telling them the tabletop itself should be 3.3ft wide, and that spacing sideways will be measured from shoulder to shoulder.
It means that to seat the maximum sized group of six people from six different households, operators would need to source a picnic table 11.5ft (3.5m) long, by 3.3ft (1m) wide.
Mr Forsyth told us: “The overwhelming majority of hospitality dining tables have a width of 0.6m (2ft) or 0.8m (2.6ft) so the recommended minimum width size of 1m can only be achieved by joining two tables together.
“What doesn’t make sense is that two people from different households sitting opposite one another and eating, won’t be achieving 1m social distancing unless they eat from their lap.
“If they eat from a place mat at the table they will probably be only half a metre apart. It doesn’t make sense.
Uproar met draft guidance outlining the shift this week, which has been shrugged off by ministers since the wording of rules has not changed.
Sturgeon: Anyone who claims hospitality rules have changed ‘is misleading people’
Pushed for answers on the concerns, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Tuesday that “myths” around the reopening were “doing no favours for the trade”.
She added: “I expect people in hospitality, who are from different households, to stay one metre (3.3ft) apart.
“Hospitality has an exemption from two metres (6.5ft) to one metre (3.3ft) – that has not changed from the last they were open.
“There is no change to the physical distancing requirements compared to the guidance in place last time pubs, restaurants and cafes were allowed to open.
“And anyone who says otherwise is misleading people.
“It remains really important that we do have physical distancing between people from different households because what is also not in the interest of hospitality is if we have outbreaks in pubs and rests that lead individuals premises to close, or outbreaks that cede wider community transmission and we have to have local lockdowns which see pubs, restaurants and cafes having to close their doors again.”
Her chief medical officer, Gregor Smith, said: “This is a different virus we are dealing with compared to late summer and autumn last year when we opened up before – it’s much more transmissible than it was before.
“I have no doubt there will come a point in time, most likely through vaccination, when we begin to see more evidence it reduces the transmission to people that we will be able to look at the distancing and start to relax that further.”
“But that point is still quite a bit in the future,” Dr Smith added.
But Inverness and Aberdeen pub owner Gavin Stevenson, speaking for the Night Time Industries Association in Scotland, outlined his fears for a “beleaguered” trade.
He said: “This last week we have seen conflicting stances taken by local authorities and Scottish Government over interpretation of existing statutory guidance.
“We have seen new guidance on physical distancing issued in draft format. And we have seen updated regulations released just three days before coming into effect.
“Beleaguered businesses in our sector need absolute clarity on the rules several weeks before they reopen in order to decide whether or not they can open viably with the restrictions in place, to enable the ordering of sufficient stock levels from the supply chain, and to give their staff appropriate notice for rotas and return from furlough.
“It is incredibly disappointing that we are now in the weekend before opening and many businesses are still confused.
“Scottish Government has had months to prepare for the eventual reopening of hospitality and to see this level of chaos in the week before reopening, when so many jobs and businesses are on the line, is incredibly disappointing.”
Stark realisation after council hospitality seminar
For a number of Aberdeen traders, it was not until Wednesday that the penny dropped; as they heard from senior Aberdeen City Council staff how the rules would be applied.
In the hours following an online seminar held for the trade, a number of businesses reassessed their plans – with the likes of the Dutch Mill in Queens Road reducing their maximum party size in response.
One Aberdeen hospitality boss raised concerns with us anonymously, having already paid for dozens of picnic tables that it has now been made clear his premises can’t use.
Following the seminar, they said: “What we were presented with throws the viability of opening outdoors into question for all licensees in the city centre – if they are going to follow the rules.
“Those operating last year in outdoor areas must have been breaking the rules last year as we are told they haven’t changed.
“Anyone with tables half a metre wide will be in breach, all those venues selling on previous capacities will be in for a shock as they will all be in breach.
“Will there be people out checking, will they be looking at this? I’m told one of the cities larger pub groups have been told they can carry on as they were doing before.
“The ones who are going to adhere to the rules will be penalised and that is patently wrong.”
During the webinar, hospitality chiefs were urged to play their part in delaying a predicted third wave late this summer, as an NHS Grampian expert revealed concerns those already vaccinated would think they had “super powers” against the virus.
Aberdeen City Council’s protective services manager, Andrew Morrison, who previously outlined how the local authority was doing its best to “walk a line” between business needs and safety rules, told traders: “From recent media stories, it appears there may be some confusion regarding physical distancing requirements between households within a single group.
“All households are required to maintain 1m distancing from other households – this not a new requirement, this has in place for a significant period.
“What is new, is the fact we are now allowed up to six individuals from up to six households.
“Much simpler to organising physical distancing when it was just two.
“To put simply, the more households in a party , the bigger the table requirements will be to accommodate them.”