Is this the reality of post-lockdown restaurant dining - Stephen Jardine

Fancy going out for dinner? Let’s be honest, after 54 days of lockdown, we all like the idea of leaving the house and going to a place where someone else has bought the food, cooked and will clean up afterwards. This week my friend Kelly did just that.

A waiter wearing a protective face mask poses in the nearly empty restaurant "Le Lyrique cafe brasserie", in Geneva. Picture: Getty

She was in lockdown in Switzerland but on Monday the Swiss Federal Council lifted restrictions to allow shops and restaurants to open, provided they implement strict hygiene rules. Kelly posted a happy picture of her first meal out in two months. At first glance all looked familiar until you notice the Perspex dividers in the room and the fact that every other table was left empty.

It may seem like the first step back to business as usual, but does anyone want this new version of normality? Swiss restaurateurs are not convinced. Despite being closed and taking no money for eight weeks, on Monday many opted to remain shut. In Geneva the majority of restaurants remained in darkness. According to Swiss media, many had decided complying with hygiene requirements is just too difficult and with reduced footfall, the cost would push them into bankruptcy.

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In every country, reopening restaurants is fraught with difficulties. Leave it too late and the businesses will be finished. Open too early and customers might not be ready for an experience that now has to put health and safety before food and service.

Here, it is all academic. The Scottish Government have said the hospitality sector will be one of the last areas to reopen for business. Right now the discussion is about how that can happen. Some in the sector believe the best course of action is to demand Government support to allow them to stay shut for the foreseeable future. As one big name chef told me: “It’s simple, social distancing just doesn’t work in restaurants”. Others are willing to try changing how they operate to at least allow the doors to open.

The big concern is what guidelines the industry will be given to follow.

In Switzerland only tables of four are allowed and guests must sit more than two metres away from other groups or be separated by some form of partitioning. An earlier requirement for restaurants to keep the names and phone numbers of all guests in case of an outbreak was dropped due to public complaints. 

Many restaurant owners fear the cost of ensuring premises are Covid- proof combined with the reduced number needed social distancing will make businesses too unprofitable to reopen.

However, eating out is a worldwide preoccupation and the longer we are in lockdown, the more chance we have to learn from others who are blazing a trail elswhere.

In New Zealand the proposal is that just a one- metre gap should be left between restaurant customers. That is much more workable. In Lithuania and Dublin, public spaces are being turned over to outdoor restaurants and cafes where social distancing is easier. Could restaurant-lined George Street in Edinburgh go the same way?

There may in time be a model that would allow restaurants in Scotland to reopen and succeed, but right now it is just about watching and waiting.

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