Covid: Why restaurant music ban is ‘kiss of death’ – Stephen Jardine

Music has been banned in restaurants to avoid people having to lean close to each other to hear conversation, potentially spreading the coronavirus, but surely a decibel limit would be a better policy, writes Stephen Jardine.

The Eat Out to Help Out Scheme is due to end soon but restaurants still need all the help they can get
The Eat Out to Help Out Scheme is due to end soon but restaurants still need all the help they can get

In a bar and restaurant in east London a couple of years ago, I asked the waiter to turn down the booming soundtrack to our lunch. We were the only people eating but the volume had been set for a club night for 500 teenagers. Moments later the manager appeared to explain the music was preset at that level and he couldn’t change it because the customers liked it loud. We didn’t, so we left. I can only imagine how that place is coping with the so-called new normal.

Under coronavirus restrictions, music is currently banned in bars, pubs and restaurants. The worry is that customers will have to sit closer to be heard above loud tunes and that could ease the spread of Covid-19. While that argument makes sense in a bar delivering Kanye West at full blast, should it really apply to the small Italian restaurant with Dean Martin warbling gently in the background?

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Outside the restaurant business, losing background music might not seem like a big deal but inside the trade, operators believe it costs them customers.

On Monday, the Chancellor’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme ends. Launched at the start of August, it aimed to drive business back to the struggling hospitality sector by offering half-price dining at the start of the week. More than 64 million meals have been served so far but when it stops, the concern is that the eating out will halt as well. For that reason, anything that makes hospitality harder is a worry.

James Thomson, owner of The Witchery and Prestonfield House in Edinburgh, thinks the ban is ridiculous for restaurants. “Very loud music in nightclubs could cause people to lean into each other but in hotels and restaurants background music adds a little bit of ambience. Having no music at all is the kiss of death in terms of atmosphere for us and there is no logic behind such a blanket ban. Diners want to eat out in a place with atmosphere not a library,” he said.

Music has always been a tricky topic for restaurants. Owners spend ages putting together the menu and the wine list and designing the look of the room but then comes the challenge of what to put on the sound system to try to cater for all tastes. What one person loves, another hates and then you need to find a volume that lifts the atmosphere but doesn’t hamper conversation.

At Contini George Street in Edinburgh, the music changed across the course of the day to match the mood of the customer at breakfast, lunch and dinner but they are also serving in silence at the moment. “We are really missing our music,” said owner Carina Contini. “It definitely helps create atmosphere, particularly at quieter times of the day. This is Festival month in Edinburgh so the city should be buzzing but instead it feels the opposite. The sooner we can get music back the better because restaurants need all the help they can get to attract customers at the moment.”

The Scottish Government say they don’t want restrictions in place a moment longer than necessary but perhaps a low limit on decibels rather than a ban is the sensible way forward to help attract customers and rebuild business at this critical time.

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