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Is Eating Out Really Helping Out?

Image: Outside seating at a restaurant in an urban area. A masked server is preparing a table.

After feeling fatigued by the seemingly endless cycle of lockdown prepping, cooking, eating and cleaning, permeated by the occasional takeaway, finally going out to eat in a restaurant was an ecstatic experience. I wasn’t entirely without my doubts, as isolation had made me hyper-aware of the presence of other people, interaction now ingrained in my brain as a high-risk activity. However, the precautions taken in this first restaurant I went to were near perfect, so much that it quelled my rampant paranoia. There was mandatory booking, track and trace, all servers were wearing facemasks or visors, a clear one-way system, online menus and tables dutifully spread out. It was a strange new format, but I felt safe in the knowledge that this place was not taking any chances. 

So when August rolled around, emboldened by the high standards of my first experience and the new irresistible discount, I ventured out to more and more restaurants, pubs and cafes. These experiences were not at all like the first. Each meal was completely different, and there was no consistency with the safety measures from place to place. One pub still had physical menus. Another cafe didn’t ask for track and trace at all. One restaurant had no distancing markers, no servers wearing masks and had made little effort to space out any of the seating. Some bars asked you to take the drinks off the tray for them, others didn’t. Once, at the same bar, two different servers did completely different things. 

Having previously worked in hospitality myself, I could empathise with how annoying these new protocols would be for staff, and simply trusted that they were doing whatever they could do – that they would not be open if it was not completely safe.

Still, I kept going, kept eating my discounted food and didn’t question it – I rationalised that this inconsistency was completely understandable. Each business has varying capacities, employees, space, and options. Having previously worked in hospitality myself, I could empathise with how annoying these new protocols would be for staff, and simply trusted that they were doing whatever they could do – that they would not be open if it was not completely safe. I wanted to ignore the red flags and keep enjoying my once-in-a-lifetime £10 discount. 

It was becoming clear, however, that the permission that the discount scheme gives us to crowd into much-missed restaurants is causing us to become blind to the real risks that they present. A small proof of this is Aberdeen, where the lack of precautions in Soul Bar – who admitted afterwards that they had not done enough to enforce distancing measures – caused an outbreak that led to a local lockdown. Businesses had to close again, travel restrictions were put in place and there was a general regression back into households. This was two days into August, and the chance for other places to get back on their feet was dashed by the few who underestimated the necessity of these guidelines. 

As their customers return and the desire to see increased footfall becomes paramount, [restaurants] begin to loosen the distancing measures – measures that were the conditions of their being able to open in the first place.

This one example exposes a greater pattern of restaurants that, as their customers return and the desire to see increased footfall becomes paramount, begin to loosen the distancing measures – measures that were the conditions of their being able to open in the first place. 300 miles away in Preston, the club-turned-“bar”, Switch, was exposed for its poor distancing, which created a domino effect leading eventually to a local lockdown. The measures put in place were very different to Aberdeen. It consisted of a ‘must not’ and a ‘should not’ list: you ‘must not’ visit each other’s houses or hold gatherings outdoors in private gardens, but you only ‘should not’ visit bars, restaurants and pubs. It is a clever and deliberate loophole, one which makes the banning of household gatherings somewhat redundant. Since you ‘must not’ go to your friend’s house where you would have talked from across the length of the garden, you can instead meet up at a restaurant, along with 50 others who have found themselves in the same situation, and talk intimately over a table in an indoor setting. But this is fine, because at the end, you get £10 off your bill – it has the government’s seal of approval. The message seems to be: “we don’t mind if you get sick, as long as you cough up some money as you do.” 

Scotland has demonstrated that it is possible to comprehend the risk that unregulated distancing standards in restaurants presents, and take appropriate action. As Aberdeen comes out of lockdown, each restaurant has to be thoroughly checked and certified by the local government before it can re-open, making sure that this time, they can actually stay open. This should have been happening from the start, and should be happening from now on. Instead of a website with ‘guidance’, a word which encourages the bending of rules, there should be constant checks, a reporting system and a culture of demanding distancing measures be upheld. Yes – it is annoying for all involved and we would all prefer things to go back to normal. The reality is that ‘normal’ can’t happen yet and it is proving dangerous to try to rush our way there. 

The message seems to be: “we don’t mind if you get sick, as long as you cough up some money as you do.”

The discount scheme has been fantastic in many ways; it has boosted the morale of a nation, and made a vital attempt to revive the economy before its beating from Brexit next year. But it only works if restaurants, cafes and pubs are actually safe. Face masks, one way systems, temperature testing and strict limits on capacity should be the mandatory conditions of operating, not an optional inconvenience. 

It has been a long, horrible, dreadful year, and we are all eager to see the back of this, but we have to think about the long term rather than be enchanted by the current pleasures. Yes, go and enjoy the newfound freedoms, and please, I implore you to support businesses that need a helping hand. Just don’t forget that we are still in a pandemic: people have died, are dying, and will continue to die if we do not take the road to recovery seriously.

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