My initial reaction to the news that cafes and restaurants will probably reopen in July was pure joy. Having been in Russia on my year abroad until a hasty exit in mid-March, I haven’t been able to enjoy the breadth of restaurant food the UK has to offer since last September. Like most homesick year abroad students, I’d discuss what restaurants I’d like to eat when I got home and what food I missed the most. Back then I craved a rich, tangy curry, something impossible to come by in provincial Russia, fantasising about trips to Thaikhun.
In lockdown my dreams have turned to simpler things. A sandwich grabbed on the way back to my room at uni or a coffee and cake with my mum after a trip to Tesco’s. On reflection, what I miss is not the food itself, but the normality these casual meals represent: relaxation or good food shared with a friend.
I was naïve if I thought the reopening of restaurants meant a return to ‘normal.’ Many chains are beginning to publish their plans for reopening, revealing a hospitality industry much changed. Wetherspoons’s £11 million reopening plan will alter many aspects of its customer experience, from putting up screens between tables to replacing ketchup bottles with sachets. Each pub will have a member of staff working full time to sanitise door handles and card machines, and staff will patrol to enforce social distancing: this is far from the relaxed pub environment of February 2020.
In a Spoons, fast-food chain or café for a lunchtime pit-stop, this arrangement might work. After all, people are adaptable, and if the last three months have shown us anything, it’s that new experiences can become the norm pretty quickly. But what about at medium to higher-end restaurants, where the focus is more on the environment and customer experience? In the past, I’d go out to a more mid-price restaurant to celebrate someone’s birthday and relax. If the restaurant experience post-reopening is far from relaxing, how many people will be willing to go and spend money?
That’s even before you consider the risks of contracting Covid-19 in a restaurant. Whilst research into how Covid-19 spreads is far from conclusive, one field study from a restaurant in Guangzhou, China, in January, suggests that one lady, who later tested positive for coronavirus, infected five others sat at different tables to her. Admittedly fewer precautions were being taken in this restaurant than will be taken post-lockdown, but this example is still worrying.
There is currently talk of the two-metre social distancing rule being relaxed to one and a half metres, or even one metre, to make the reopening of the hospitality industry more feasible. Whilst this would help with making cafes and restaurants feel more ‘normal,’ this comes with increased risks. The risk of being exposed to an infected person for one minute at a two-metre distance is the same as being exposed for merely six seconds at one metre, according to SAGE. The potential for exposure in a restaurant would, therefore, be considerable, before even considering transport there.
All in all, weighing up the risks surrounding visiting a restaurant feels like trying to balance an equation of unending variables. It’s difficult to say how much greater or smaller the risk of going to a restaurant will be than, say, a trip to the supermarket or a tennis doubles match. I would personally have fewer qualms about going out to a restaurant and risking infecting myself, but I recognise that as a young person with no underlying health conditions I’m in a privileged position. Yet bringing home Covid-19 and infecting family members currently feels like a risk, however small, that makes my desire for sushi or a slice of cake seem insignificant. That said, at some point, everyone will have to resume normal life again, and a visit to a restaurant carefully following the guidelines seems a sensible mid-point on the road to normality.
If I’d realised in March that the road of out lockdown would be considerably more fraught than the road into it, I’d have picked something more exciting as a last meal out than a hasty Burger King at Moscow airport. In the meantime, until restaurants reopen its back to my burnt banana bread and sourdough starter.
Image Credit: Jonas01123, Flickr Creative Commons