Celebration was in the air as England welcomed the return of outdoor drinking and dining on Monday, but the easing of lockdown was also met with concerns about a lack of social distancing, and a wider sense of nervousness within the hospitality sector as businesses tried to operate at significantly lower capacity and with some confusion over the rules.
As people braved the inclement weather to enjoy their first night out in months, images circulated on social media showing packed streets and “very little” social distancing in Soho in London.
Roads had been closed to make room for al fresco dining and drinking, and despite the presence of police and Covid marshals there seemed to be few interventions to enforce social distancing.
Attila Kulcsar, a media communications manager, told PA the atmosphere was “like a return to the ‘real’ Soho of the 1990s” – or “like how I imagine VE Day”.
“There is a wonderfully raucous hysteria everywhere. It’s very celebratory. There is very little social distancing. A distinct sense that people feel the Covid restrictions have ended,” he said.
Boris Johnson had urged people to “continue to behave responsibly” as the restrictions were eased. Non-essential stores also reopened, along with indoor gyms, swimming pools, beauty salons and zoos.
Despite temperatures dropping below freezing in Newcastle, slots at The Bank and Switch bars were fully booked long before their doors opened at the stroke of midnight.
In London’s Kingly Court, a manager at Pizza Pilgrims said reopening had been “amazing” and that staff had done well to handle social distancing across the restaurant’s courtyard and street-side tables.
“It wasn’t as bad as Soho here. It went really well, much busier than expected to be honest. We weren’t expecting to have a long queue from open to close,” they said.
There were similar scenes in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, where people were “buzzing” to be out socialising again after months of lockdown.
In the middle of another busy shift on Tuesday afternoon, staff at the cocktail bar Wolf At The Door said the reopening had gone extremely well. “It’s been mega, so good, really really busy. We’ve had queues of people waiting for 2 hours to have a drink outside, we couldn’t be happier.”
But amid the jubilant scenes, there were fears that many businesses will not survive on outdoor hospitality alone. Though it expected 40% of England’s pubs had reopened, the British Beer and Pub Association warned there was nervousness among businesses, many of whom were operating at less than 20% capacity.
Its chief executive, Emma McClarkin, said: “We should remember that those opening will be loss-making, with the ability to trade beyond break-even coming with the removal of all restrictions.
“With so many pubs still not opening, though, it’s crucial the government sticks to its roadmap and allows pubs to reopen indoors from 17 May and without any restrictions at all from 21 June. That is the only way our pubs can trade viably and begin to fully recover.”
There was also some confusion over the government’s guidance on what counts as outdoors and whether groups still needed to be 2 metres apart when outside.
The guidances states: “To be considered ‘outdoors’, shelters, marquees and other structures can have a roof but need to have at least 50% of the area of their walls open at all times whilst in use.” This raises questions over the whether outdoor structures such as igloos, greenhouses, sheds, tents and beach huts are allowed.
Paul Mellor, who runs the Cube Bar in Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire, wrote to the prime minister after the local council said his walled outdoor seating area was non-compliant. He could not reopen despite being “fully stocked up to serve more than 1,000 meals that we’ve got booked in,” he told the Blackpool Gazette.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of the trade association UK Hospitality, said that despite some signs of strong sales in a week of adverse weather conditions, the industry was “far from being out of the woods”.
She told the Guardian: “For the majority of hospitality venues the start of this week marked another day of closure. Even for those permitted to trade, with indoor areas dormant and severely reduced capacity they’re unlikely to have broken even, let alone turned a profit. The sector remains in a fragile state and will do for some time with uncertainty still looming over businesses.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Prof Adam Finn, a paediatrician on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said people should continue to observe social distancing regardless of the success of the vaccine programme.
He told BBC Breakfast: “If I [went to a beer garden], I would certainly avoid close contact with other people. The risks of transmission outside are relatively low, but not if you start coming into very close contact with people. It’s not like it’s all over, we can all go back to normal.”
Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, described “a joyous day” but warned “the virus is still out there and very infectious” so people should remain cautious.
He added: “We can’t ignore what’s going on in the rest of the world – every other day new variants are being reported and infection is rife.”