Restrictions on guest numbers allowed in London private dining rooms
London restaurants were allowed by the government to reopen nearly a month ago on Saturday 4th July following the coronavirus lockdown.
Allowing restaurants to reopen ended what had effectively been a pandemic-enforced restraint of trade to a sector which had been the first to be affected by the Covid-19 emergency and will be one of the last to emerge.
Hospitality is one of the sectors worse-affected by COVID-19
As has been mentioned in previous articles, the London restaurant industry essentially acted as an early warning system for the devastating effect that Covid-19 would have to the UK economy when restaurants suddenly noticed a dramatic cancellation of bookings for corporate dining events at the end of February and first days of March.
Many restaurants and hotels with private dining rooms in London have reopened with others planning to open during the next two months. Some venues are waiting until September and October to gauge whether there will be a ‘second spike’ lockdown before opening their premises with others waiting to see if government guidelines regarding maximum guest capacity numbers will be increased to make their reopening a more viable concern.
While many sectors in the UK have thus far been largely unaffected by the Coronavirus health crisis, the hospitality industry, not least of all the restaurant trade, has been devastated by the government enforced lockdown and subsequent guidelines restricting numbers of guests that are allowed to congregate now that reopening has been allowed.
Government guidelines – which can at the very least be described as being confusingly ambiguous and open to differing interpretation – have had a particular effect on private dining rooms at restaurants and hotels in London and throughout the United Kingdom.
Mixed interpretations of the COVID-19 guidelines
Protocol regarding London restaurants’ private dining room capacities under government guidelines has been interpreted differently by venues and it is clear that more comprehensive and understandable guidance needs to be provided to enable restaurants to move forward with planning private dining events which have hitherto been such an important part of their overall operation.
A particular anomaly in the government guidelines is that whilst wedding meals of up to 30 socially distanced guests are allowed to take place from 1st August, other private dining events of a similar number of guests – such as corporate breakfasts, lunches and dinners and group dining events for friends and family including birthday, Christening, anniversary & bridal shower celebration lunches and dinners would appear not to be able to take place.
Venues are confused whether ‘bubbles’ of up to two households are the maximum number that are allowed to congregate in a private dining room with some venues interpreting the guidance as meaning a maximum of two households per table in a room, rather than per room. Restaurants that we have spoken to have voiced their frustration at being unable to build clarity on a foundation of confusion.
How dining patterns have changed following the pandemic
Some restaurant groups with venues throughout London are reporting that pre-Covid their private dining events were comprised of 85% corporate and 15% family & friends with their corporate bookings having currently largely dried up due to workers being furloughed and working from home with offices close to the venues being closed.
The government, faced with an admittedly unenviable task of trying to stimulate the economy whilst maintaining public health safety in a determined effort to prevent an economy-crippling second Coronavirus spike, has recently set out a nine month plan for companies to get their staff back to workplaces in town and city centres where businesses, especially restaurants, have been so hard hit by lack of corporate bookings due to staff in popular areas – including areas in London such as such as Canary Wharf, the City of London and the West End – working from home or being furloughed.
The challenge of stimulating corporate demand for private dining rooms at restaurants in London areas which had – pre-Covid-19 – been in great demand has been compounded by the announcements by large companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and BP that staff would not be returning to London offices until the end of the year and in some cases until the middle of 2021. It has been suggested that up to a third of London office workers will not be returning to their workplaces by Christmas. Other large companies such as Unilever have indicated that the days of 100% based office working are probably over and to be replaced with a hybrid system where staff only visit the office a few days of the week. London is looking quite deserted at the moment and returning workers to their London workplaces will be a key part of stimulating demand for London restaurants and in helping the sector recover from the damage that Covid-19 has caused.
Other problems exacerbating the situation for restaurants in London and large cities throughout the UK in trying to get back to a modicum of normality include the decline in the numbers of tourists visiting London and the ongoing situation of negotiating rent payment holidays and reduced rent until the pandemic eases and people feel safe to return to both working from the workplace and eating out in restaurants in London. It is clear that government assistance with rent payment holidays and reductions will be required to enable restaurants operating at Covid safety regulations-enforced reduced customer numbers to be able to operate at a minimum break-even level.
How restaurants have interpreted the coronavirus rules
A consistent theme in conversations that Private Dining Rooms has been having this week with London restaurants who operate a private dining room service is the confusion regarding mixed social groups and maximum socially distanced capacities that they are able to accommodate.
London restaurants that Private Dining Rooms has spoken with have offered the following differing interpretations of maximum capacities and social ‘bubbles’ in their private dining rooms,
- Maximum number of 6 guests from no more than 2 families.
- No more than 2 households per private dining room, irrespective of number of guests.
- 10 – 30 guests per room for dining and standing events.
- Up to 40 guests per room with guests seated 6 per table.
- Up to 30 guests per room – with no limit to number of households from which guests belong – to bring capacity in line with government guidelines on marriage/civil partnership events.
- No check on how many households guests come from with onus on guests to use their common sense.
It goes without saying that – regardless of restaurants and hotels’ interpretations of maximum capacity numbers allowed per room – all restaurants are insisting that guests in their private dining rooms be seated at a 1 metre plus social distance with hand sanitisers to be applied by all guests on arrival and available at all times and disposable one-use menus provided alongside other hygiene safety measures in adherence to government guidelines. Restaurants are also insisting that guests be NHS track and trace registered and are taking responsibility for recording the names and contact details of all guests attending private dining events.
Some London restaurants that we have spoken to have advised that they are only taking bookings for events in their private dining rooms with their main restaurants remaining closed.
How will coronavirus dining guidelines change?
The vast majority of restaurants have confirmed that, in anticipation of the number of guests being allowed to attend group dining events being increased by further government guidelines in the coming months, they are taking bookings for large corporate Christmas party private dining events of up to 150 guests with unprecedented flexibility regarding deposit return in the event of festive bookings having to be cancelled due to a second spike or localised lockdown.
It is to be hoped that the government will expand its guidelines regarding capacities and the social ‘bubble’ group mix allowed in private dining rooms in London to provide restaurants and hotels with a clearer understanding of which events they are allowed to accommodate as well as furnishing companies with the same advice to enable them to start booking their corporate private dining events in London.