'Recreating the cafe street scene' - Is this the way for Edinburgh's cafes and restaurants to reopen while maintaining social distancing?
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The Grassmarket, George Street and Princes Street Gardens are among the areas which could be used by businesses to seat people who want to go out to enjoy a meal or coffee outside.
Business leaders have backed the need to explore how an open-air cafe and restaurant scene might work, in bid to help the hospitality trade survive, with social distancing set to continue in Scotland for the rest of the year.
Edinburgh-based licensing specialist Caroline Loudon, a partner in UK-wide law firm TLT, has been in talks with clients and architects this week who are working on new layouts in preparation for a “stepped process” out of lockdown.
She says one idea raised involves using perspex screens as transmission barriers between tables to enable social distancing while seated, something which is happening in Italy, Germany and Spain in social settings like supermarkets or beaches.
Speaking to the Edinburgh Evening News on Thursday, Caroline said: “We are looking at places that can make a significant food offering in a socially distanced area.
“People are having to innovate and we have an industry which is all about innovation and they are desperate to get back to serving those who want to be served. I can’t tell you about the amount of emotion in these places which have shut. It’s the lifeblood of these operators.
“I think this is a great idea and, with a bit of innovation, it could really happen and get this city back up and running. It would be great to recreate the continental cafe street scene here. We’ve created it before so there’s precedent in this city for doing it.”
‘Let’s think creatively’
Discussions are very much at an early stage, but they come after The Guardian reported earlier this week that Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, announced proposals to give over public spaces to struggling bar and restaurant owners to put their tables outside while maintaining social distancing.
Caroline, who has 15 years experience in licensing law, says premises seeking outdoor seating will need to check they have the licence for outdoor drinking areas, and that some may need to apply to vary their license to enable this. Another route would be to apply for occasional licences (lasting for 14 days), done by the many cafes and restaurants lining George Street during the Edinburgh Festival which allows them to expand onto the street.
Much of this will depend on the will of Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Government, particularly in relation to how strict lockdown measures are lifted and the decisions to close public roads and use public space. But Caroline says these public bodies have been very helpful so far in enabling some companies to adapt, for instance by allowing online sales and deliveries.
But any discussions for open-air seating in Edinburgh are not likely to involve pubs at this stage, given the challenges of checking that customers standing outside and drinking would not be in breach of social distancing.
She also stressed another big hurdle for premises will be ensuring access to toilet facilities while maintaining physical distances.
Businesses would also need to come up with solutions to counter the changeable Scottish weather, while many will be faced with the obstacles of finding enough outdoor space for seating if roads could not be closed or boundaries extended across pavements.
However, Caroline believes green spaces across the city, including the likes of Princes Street Gardens, would present the ideal opportunity for businesses to set up stalls with outdoor seating areas with access to nearby Portaloos.
She says the hope is to start seeing cafes and restaurants operating in a socially distanced way by July or August, adding: “I’ve had clients phoning, so we need to be ready and we want to be at the forefront so that, when the government says you can go and do this, these clients will be ready to do it.
“10pm is generally the time limit on outdoor drinking and we could see people testing the water by running things until 10pm, with a view to extending this to midnight but we have to remember these are still residential areas. There’s a balance with that and letting people reopen to get things back to normal.”
Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said today that it’s still “too early” to start lifting strict lockdown measures and that it won’t be a “flick of the switch moment.”
The current UK and Scottish Government advice is to only leave home to get food, medical care, help a vulnerable person, exercise once a day or for ‘essential’ work that can’t be done from home. When outside, people should maintain a physical distance of two metres with people from other households.
Bars, restaurants and cafes remain closed to the public but some businesses are still offering takeaway and delivery services.
Garry Clark, Federation of Small Businesses development manager representing smaller businesses in Fife, Edinburgh, Lothians and Border, says he is hopeful that public bodies including the Scottish Government would continue to be flexible in order to help businesses survive in the coming months.
Speaking about the idea of open-air cafes and restaurants in Edinburgh in the summer, he said: "The bar and restaurant trade are understandably nervous at the moment and are looking for ways to get back to business and, if social distancing is here to stay for the medium term, if not longer term, things like this have to be part of that mix.
"It's certainly worth exploring. Edinburgh has changed dramatically in the last few weeks and with no festival this year it will be a very different Edinburgh, so let's think creatively and I think businesses are up for doing things differently and doing what they need to do to survive.”