Bars and restaurants in Preston city centre say they are brunting the cost of the government's unclear guidance around socialising this Christmas.
Last Friday (December 8) Boris Johnson reintroduced working from home across the country, amid rising cases of the coronavirus, and although he did not close hospitality venues or ban Christmas gatherings, he did advise people to reconsider their plans.
Bars and restaurants say this confusion over what is safe, and what is not, has disproportionately affected their businesses, and although they do the best they can to ease the effects, more support is needed.
Mark O’Rourke, the owner and director of Preston's La Neta Mexican, 263 Restaurant, Fino Tapas and Winckley Street Ale House, said: “You can’t, on the one hand, say have Christmas parties, and on the other hand, say work from home, because no responsible director's going to say ‘you're all working from home starting tomorrow but I'll see you tomorrow night to get drunk’, so we've had loads of cancellations- last weekend alone, Fino Tapas Preston had 200 people in total cancel.
"It's been really difficult, and other business owners I’ve spoken to feel the same. For the hospitality industry, every December, you’re supposed to get a boost from the Christmas bookings and it's meant to pull you through January and February, which are notoriously quiet, but the last two weeks of October and the first week of September, we took more at Fino Tapas than we have any week so far in December.”
Cancellations coming at this time of year hit restaurants and bars particularly hard due to the high proportion of large party bookings this includes.
Mark explained: “If we didn't take Christmas bookings this year, we’d still be full every weekend, so it's annoying taking party bookings and getting cancellations. The problems not even the food, because if we get cancellations, we just won’t order much more for Saturday or Sunday, but when I've taken on extra staff to facilitate bookings, then I might end up with seven chefs at one site when I only needed five. Last Friday, Fino Tapas had a table of 50 that cancelled Friday morning, but that's an entire floor, they had a bar to themselves, two bar staff, five waiting staff and extra chefs, so then we’re stuck with an entire floor with no bookings and all the staff. A table of 50 people would normally pay a whole month's rent for us.”
In terms of safety, staff at Mark's numerous restaurants have never stopped wearing masks, and they still have hand sanitising points, and tables spread at a distance.
Mark says that their constant safety measures is in contrast to the government's ever changing restrictions, and that actually too much emphasis is placed on the dangers of hospitality.
He adds: “All of my mates kids have come home from school with covid, but when was the last time you heard someone say they went out for dinner and got covid? So it’s frustrating, I’ve been closed for so many months and I’ve still got rent to pay, at nine properties, which off the top of my head would be around £400,000 a year, so I’ve got to find that somewhere.”
1842 Bar and Restaurant and Floriana's are two other Preston businesses who say they are feeling the detrimental affects of the government's new guidance, despite remaining as precautious as ever.
Brandon Seddon, the manager of 1842 said : “We've found customers have been on one end of the spectrum or the other, some want to make sure they get their Christmas parties in before a potential January lockdown, and then we’ve had a lot cancelling. For example last weekend, we had one booking for 450 people that cancelled 24 hours before, so we luckily charge deposits for that reason, to protect ourselves a bit.
“Advising people not to go out, without making it a rule, just looks like the government are avoiding having to pay money out to support the businesses. Luckily, because we are a big venue, and we've been very on top of the health and safety guidelines, we’ve found that people do feel safe with us, so even when people have cancelled, bookings have come in to fill them, but I know a lot of venues that have had to shut.”
With confusing and changing restrictions causing concern amongst the public, Brandon explains this is partly why 1842 has retained safety measures such as social distancing, screens around the bar and in between tables, optional mask wearing and posters advising people to sanitise and thoroughly wash their hands.
Brandon said: "As a restaurant, it’s horrible when they don't give clear guidelines of what to do, and as always, people panic, so I think they just need to understand that there are still restrictions in place, and venues are trained to operate in a safe way. Since covid, people do act differently, as a venue, we're not packed in like sardines like we used to be, and we've become more of a restaurant style, retaining as much of the table service as we can to make sure people feel safer."
Meanwhile, Floriana's say they have had 60 cancellations in December so far, a "massive" number for them as a business.
Although the restaurant has introduced a deposit system, and managed to replace some of the bookings, whilst a few cancellations have postponed to the new year, they are still feeling the negative effects.
Andrew Forster, the owner, said: “It’s hard work, because for most bookings, we take pre orders, so we order the food in for that table and then we’re lumbered with tonnes and tonnes of stock, which ultimately, unless we can shift it, has to be thrown away. It hasn't been too bad at the moment, with it being Christmas, a lot of the food is veg, but, some of the meat, although we are a fresh food restaurant, we've had to freeze.
"Ultimately Boris's announcement has had such an impact because we're a small city centre, so people are scared that it's just going to be drunk revelers bumping into each other, but restaurants are doing their best, we're not overcrowded, it’s table service only, there’s ventilation, we're asking people to use hand sanitizer, check in using the NHS app and wear masks, so we're taking all the precautions that we can."
Andrew adds that whilst restaurants are doing all they can to keep customers safe as cases rise, more support for the hospitality sector is needed in return.
He explained: “We need additional support but I don't think we're gonna get it. It's as if the government wants restaurants and bars to potentially shut, by suggesting customers shouldn’t go, without actually forcing us to, because if they did, they'd have to give us support packages, and they don't have the money to do it.
“So it'd be nice if people could try their best to support the hospitality industry, particularly local, independent, businesses, of which there’s a lot of in Preston, because we've struggled a lot for the last 18 months, and we really need the support of the people from Preston to stay open because otherwise there isn't going to be much of a nighttime economy or daytime economy to come back to after this.”