The idea that operators will be able to reopen their businesses in the near future has been dismissed as a “confusion of optimism”, MCA’s The Conversation has heard.

Street Feast CEO Jonathan Downey told the virtual event it was in the restaurant industry’s nature to have a “show must go on” mentality – but argued they should prepare for extended period of closure.

Downey said while food to go and fast casual brands may well resume operations earlier, for many dine-in restaurants, social distancing would make it impossible to operate.

Hawksmoor CEO Will Beckett agreed, and cautioned against using China and Hong Kong as a example to follow, citing major cultural differences.

UK Hospitality CEO Kate Nicholls also said operators should not to rush to reopen, especially if social distancing made trade financially unviable.

Downey said he had given up on the idea of reopening his Dinerama street food venue before September, adding that novel ideas on how to operate safely could end of being counterproductive.

He said: “Its characteristic of hospitality to say, ‘we’ll get it done, the show must go on,’ but I can’t see it.

“While I understand, applaud and admire these efforts to find a way to make it work, and we’ve seen what’s happened in Hong Kong, it’s not going to work like that here.

“We go out for fun and to have a good time, we don’t go for fuel. Being separated by a Perspex screen and sat by yourself, staff wearing masks and having your temperature taken on your way in, it seems ridiculous for the majority.

“We need to accept we’re not going to get back open soon. If you’re 30% down, you’re going to lose more money opening than staying closed. It’s about a longer hibernation for our industry. No matter how good the creative solutions, they won’t be enough to get you back into profitability.

“That doesn’t apply to every business. I’m sure we’ll see takeaway, fast casual, drive through, grab and go reopen, places like Pret and itsu, where you can run in and out without getting infected. But I can’t see it for some of my favourite restaurants like Dishoom and Hawsmoor.”

Will Beckett agreed, adding: “The idea we ought to look to China, as a canary in the mine for our industry, doesn’t feel right at all

“The extent to which there are national differences is massive and underappreciated at the moment.

“I don’t think we ought to waste any time at all thinking about what might happen on the basis of what’s happening in China.”

Beckett said his teams had examined various operating models, floor layouts and the “horrific” possibility of staff wearing personal protective equipment.

“There’s a long-term danger to the industry of opening when people have to wear gloves and masks, which would give the contrary impression to the message that’s intended, that restaurants are safe”, he said. 

Kate Nicholls said there would need to be nuanced approach based on the different service styles in the industry.

“The Government will want to work with different sub sectors and see what works,” she said. ”What does limited opening with social distancing look like? Who can open and who can’t?

“I don’t see how it’s feasible to reopen with a lot of social distancing in place for some of those businesses.

“I don’t think we want to rushing to be in the first or second wave of reopenings,” she added. “But certainly we would want those that can be in the third wave, if not the fourth or fifth wave as we get further through the year.”

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