By Paul Sandle and Ben Dangerfield
LONDON – Some pubs and restaurants already reeling from the pandemic face ruin, owners warned on Tuesday, after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered them to close early for the next six months to help curb rapidly rising Covid-19 infections.
Some operators said the new restrictions, which include a ban on serving customers at the bar, could sound the death knell for businesses that were forced to shut for 15 weeks earlier this year.
“We may as well not open some of our bars,” said Martin Wolstencroft, CEO of Arc Inspirations, which runs 17 bars and restaurants in northern England. “After 10 o’clock is really when we start making money because that’s when we get busier.”
“This is going to be the final nail in the coffin for many, many operators,” he told BBC radio.
As part of a package of new restrictions, Johnson said all hospitality venues must close at 10 p.m., a peak time for many.
The measures came after scientists warned that deaths from the disease could soar without urgent action. The number of new cases is rising fastest among those aged 20-29, although other, more vulnerable groups, are also at risk.
“I am sorry this will hurt many businesses just getting back on their feet, but we must act to stop the virus from being transmitted in bars and restaurants,” he said.
Thomas Kidd, director of Adventure Bar Group which has nine outlets in London, said rules were changing too often.
“The constant moving feast makes it very difficult to know what we are planning for … People don’t mind fighting the fight today if they understand where we’re working towards.”
PUBS NOT TO BLAME
Tim Martin, chairman of JD Wetherspoon, told Reuters there was no evidence to show the virus was spreading in pubs. Instead, private gatherings were to blame, he said.
Pubs could be kept safe by managers enforcing social distancing, with compliance checked by licensing authorities who had access to closed circuit TV, he added.
According to Martin, more than 800 of his pubs had reported no positive tests for the coronavirus, 40 had one and a handful had more than one, despite about 32 million customer visits in the 10 weeks since July 4.
There had been 66 positive tests for COVID-19 among its 41,564 employees during this time, the company said.
Shares in pubs and restaurant operators, already battered by the impact of COVID-19, fell on Monday as news of the tougher measures trickled through.
Underlining the crisis facing the industry, hotels and restaurants operator Whitbread said on Tuesday it planned to cut up to 6,000 jobs.
Public opinion on whether the measures were necessary or would be effective were mixed.
“I think probably just closing the bars at 10 ultimately won’t go far enough and they’ll probably need to do a bit more looking at how the curve is going up quite sharply,” art director Emma Leaney said.
Wetherspoon’s Martin said the government was already losing the country because its rules were over-complicated and the message had changed too much.
“We’ve adopted a Big Brother approach, we are coming out with more and more regulations because the government wants to be seen to be doing things,” he said.
“If you trust people and tell them what’s good for them and their colleagues and family they will do it. Threaten people, involve the police, it’s just the wrong approach.”