Edinburgh hospitality business owners warning over 'disastrous' distancing rules

Furious cafe and restaurant owners from the capital have warned distancing proposals under new hospitality guidance will be “disastrous” for the sector.

Tuesday, 20th April 2021, 6:00 pm

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Audrey Thornburn, owner of Piecebox in Polwarth, said it will not be viable for her cafe to open on April 26 under the latest draft guidance published on Friday by the Scottish government.

Along with a number of restaurant and cafe owners, Mrs Thornburn said the new proposals which mean people from different households will now have to observe social distancing at tables, will significantly reduce capacity for struggling businesses.

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Audrey Thornburn and Nadia Di Giorgio at St Andrew's House

The trade had expected that 1m social distancing would apply between tables when they reopened next Monday in the latest stage of the road map out of lockdown.

The business owners, all women, gathered outside St Andrew’s House, HQ of the Scottish Government, ahead of Nicola Sturgeon arriving to give her daily Covid briefing.

Despite their demonstration, the First Minister said claims of changes to the guidance were ‘misleading’ and insisted that the guidance remained unchanged at 1m.

But Mrs Thornburn accused the government of “back tracking” over its own guidance, claiming more distance between tables is now required to comply meaning the capacity of businesses could be slashed by up to sixty per cent.

She also criticised the short notice, ahead of the planned reopening next Monday, and urged the Scottish government to reconsider.

The guidance states that while standard requirement for hospitality is 1m per person, businesses should have a socially distanced space “in all directions” of approximately 2m between two people sitting, standing or walking.

Mrs Thornburn, 54, said: “With these guidelines the capacity of my cafe would be cut by 60 per cent, from 40 seats down to 13. It says you can do 1m distancing with mitigations, but that’s really not clear. If this isn’t changed, we can’t afford to open. At weekend we’d need 2 chefs, a kitchen porter and three serving staff. So it would go down to 7 customers. That's not viable, we just couldn’t make ends meet.

“I’ve spent £10,000 on medical grade ventilation, set up a one-way system, screens and sorted many other measures. Now even if I put two tables together, standard 700cm, that won’t be compliant with these requirements. What’s the reasoning behind this?

"I’m so angry that the First Minister says we are misleading people. Contrary to what she has said today, the guidelines are different on physical distance based capacity. Six days until we reopen and she has back tracked on this document published by her own Government. Many won’t be able to afford to open. They need to provide urgent clarity on this.”

Nadia Di Giorgio, owner of Cafe di Giorgio, said: “To bring our staff back, we need bums on seats. If we can’t get enough people in it isn’t viable to open. We have a capacity of 33 but with these guidelines we are looking at maybe 8 to ten people. It defies logic. We are having to turn customers away. What do we tell our staff? We can’t promise we can stay open. It’s weighing heavily on everyone.”

Carina Contini, co-owner of Contini restaurants in Edinburgh, said: “It’s frightening, venues are looking at operating at maybe a fifth capacity. This distancing requirement is critical to determine the survival of our businesses. We still have big overheads like rent. People are struggling to pay bills, the stress is unbearable.

“Hospitality is not a significant spreader. I’m more fearful of the regulations than the disease now. As far as I know there has been no consultation on this. So what is it all based on. We have followed the rules, let us help our businesses to survive.”

Jeremy Balfour, MSP for Lothian said: “This guidance will stop lots of cafes and other businesses from opening. There’s very little evidence of any spread from hospitality. Yet it has suffered hugely over the last 14 months. It’s a huge blow to get this guidance now, so late in the day and without proper consultation. Clearly, it’s not the same as the First Minister claimed. But they still have time to change it. They need to review this before the 26 and allow businesses to open and get back to normality.”

The Scottish Government has been asked for comment.

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