The time is nigh for lockdown to end, but what will our favourite venues look like when it does?
Time to own up. The answer to the question posed in the title of this article is, I’m afraid, extremely difficult to answer.
It’s so difficult in fact that I don’t think I can even give you a straight answer – there are just too many varying and conflicting predictions on what’s going to happen in the hospitality industry over the next 6 months.
Therefore I thought it best to separate and examine the many different bits and pieces that keep getting fed through the news, and look to see whether they are viable or likely to work within Manchester’s venues.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy task, mainly owing to the fact that the government is still yet to even give a definitive date for bars and restaurants to open (the current rumoured date is around June 22nd) and even if we have that – there are no rules or regulations in place for people to follow.
It’s all a bit of a mess really, much like this whole COVID-19 affair, but with around 4 million jobs at risk, it’s important for this to be done right in order to minimise the negative impact and any redundancies that may occur.
One of the main things to come out of the pandemic is the process of ‘social distancing’ or, in other words, staying at least 2 metres away from all other human beings in order to significantly reduce the risk of passing on the virus.
It’s clear straight away that this will pose some serious problems for bars, restaurants and clubs when they re-open. Let’s take The Temple on Oxford Road as an example. If they were to adhere to social distancing guidelines, they would only be allowed around 3 customers in the venue at any one time, and due to how narrow it is, none of those customers will be able to go to the toilet or the bar, sitting in a room thirsty and covered in their own wee. Probably not the best night out I’ve ever had (but also wouldn’t be the worst!)
Larger venues, on the other hand, may be able to weather the social distancing much better, but will it be financially viable? Well, Atlas Bar on Deansgate recently revealed how they would have to tackle the issue on their social media channels and it doesn’t look for pretty reading.
Changing all of the tables around and adhering to social distancing rules will dramatically reduce their capacity from 186 to only 42, essentially meaning they’ll be taking only a quarter of what they usually do – surely this would then mean that they only need a quarter of their staff and a quarter of their supplies etc. Add in fixed overheads like rent and rates and the prospect of opening certainly doesn’t look very attractive at all.
At the moment it seems that only the larger brands of bars and restaurants are able to see opening up with these restrictions as a possibility. We all know that the fella who owns Wetherspoons will open as soon as he bloody well can, and it’s likely that the other ‘big boys’ will follow suit.
The city’s independents though are in a very difficult situation, however, one which could see them disappear altogether and indeed make redundancies as the government’s furlough system winds down.
Another proposed system of reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19 is the process of opening up but not allowing customers to go to the bar to order their drinks or food. You’d enter a venue, be seated in a socially distanced table and then you order your food and drinks either with the staff or, even better, using an app.
This system is already in place in Wetherspoons, and has been for a few years now, but over the last couple of weeks, a few new contenders have appeared – all aiming to become the prime pre-ordering app that people use.
In Manchester, there’s ‘Gulp‘ headed up by co-creator of Bongo’s Bingo Joshua Burke and there’s a new web-app from the local lads at Viper. The Viper team are offering their service to Manchester independent businesses to use for free, so it makes sense for them to give it a go, but will customers use it?
Yes, I reckon they will – I mean, every time I go to Wetherspoons I pull out the app and order from there, mostly because I don’t want to get into a conversation with an old bloke at the bar about Brexit or Boris Johnson, and also because it’s much more convenient. Oh and I’m lazy.
I think these apps will work and they’ll work really well, but the issue still comes down to the idea of social distancing and the fact that venues will be at about a quarter capacity than usual. Will a pre-ordering app help bring in more customers and revenue? No. Not at all.
Another proposed idea to get the hospitality sector back on to its feet is to utilise the ample beer gardens and outdoor space that our cities offer and create outdoor ‘social distancing pods’ (or tables to you and me) where a venue’s capacity can get back to normal by vastly increasing its size and utilising outdoor space.
Countries throughout Europe like Germany, Italy and Spain, who are slowly coming out of their (better organised) lockdowns have utilised their outdoor spaces exceptionally well, by adding more tables and chairs on terraces, maintaining a minimum of 1m between them and ensuring that people wear masks wherever possible.
Added to the fact that medical experts agree that the disease is much harder to pass on when outside, I think this idea certainly has legs and is something that will address the capacity issues mentioned above.
However, let’s take Atlas Bar as an example. They’re well known for their rather impressive beer garden and so this idea should suit them perfectly. Taking into consideration a 2m distance outside, their capacity goes from 20 tables to only 9 – less than half. This also doesn’t take into account the many, many venues in the city that don’t have access to an outdoor area – or have beer gardens which are tiny.
Recent days have seen rumblings from the council about creating more outdoor space within the city, something that follows on the heels of the decision to partly pedestrianise Deansgate and fully close Thomas Street in the NQ off to traffic. Plans are also to add more areas in the Northern Quarter and the Gay Village, which will significantly increase the capacity of many venues in these areas.
There’s always the fact that the weather is always a bit shitty in Manchester, and the many venues in the city that aren’t in these designated areas that will still struggle. It’s a step in the right direction though.
One suggestion for pubs when the lockdown finishes is to transform their venues into Bavarian-style bier houses – you know the ones with the benches and them massive steins and everyone wearing lederhosen? Yeah, them ones.
The proposals have been backed by the British Beer and Pub Association and CAMRA, much in response to plans set out in European countries that have started opening up. The idea is that it’ll reduce the number of people walking around, as the benches will have table service and if you have a beer in a bigger container (steins) you won’t need to order as frequently.
It might help, but once again, many of the city’s establishments don’t have the space to do this and the initial cost of buying in new tables, benches and glass wear will most likely make it an unattractive solution to an already difficult situation.
So what is the answer and what are businesses doing to prepare? Well, that’s the problem – nobody really knows.
Whenever the date is unveiled for when bars and restaurants can open, it looks likely to be some time within the next six weeks.
The most likely occurrence is that it will be the bigger brands that can shoulder a severe reduction in capacity, so they’ll open during a first wave, with the remaining smaller, independent venues waiting to see how the new measures hold up.
The major problem is that social distancing and hospitality just don’t work well together – and so it’s only until the rules and attitudes around this 2m rule are relaxed completely that venues can truly open and get back on their feet again.
It’s a Catch-22 with thousands of lives on one side and the livelihood of millions on the other. The next few months are set to be very interesting indeed.