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Outside space is key to restaurants reopening

Parrillan, Coal Drops Yard, King's cross, outdoor dining pre-COVID, Credit: Greg Funnell

Shutting streets and relaxing outdoor seating rules will help the food and drink industry get back on its feet, writes Lucy Allen

Campaigners are calling for city centres to be turned into huge alfresco dining spaces this summer in a bid to help restaurateurs get up and running again.
Under the proposals, streets could be temporarily closed to traffic, licensing rules relaxed, or cafe owners helped to buy European-style patio enclosures to keep diners warm and dry if the weather's bad. The UK Grand Outdoor Summer Café campaign has asked the government and local councils to allow restaurants and bars to serve food and drink in the open spaces and squares outside their premises.

Founder Alan Lorrimer, of music venues The Piano Works, has written to the government suggesting that spaces such as London's Trafalgar Square become outdoor cafes. He says: Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, has allowed seating on the pavements, streets and squares outside restaurants and bars, so the public can enjoy physically distanced meals. The tables are all well spaced and there are clear passages in and out. Under our present system, we have outdoor battle lines drawn by councils that operators must defend each year. Let's create a summertime truce.

The government has said the hospitality sector could start to reopen from 4 July, if Covid-19 safety guidelines can be met, but has yet to announce details.
Meanwhile, Liverpool's mayor Joe Anderson has created a £450,000 fund to help businesses turn their outdoor spaces into covered seating.

Peter Kinsella, of Catalan restaurant Lunya on Liverpool's Hanover Street, says: It is a fabulous idea. But the kit we might need is going to be in the region of £8,000 to £10,000. In the past, when we have tried to put umbrellas up, it was just too windy. But permanent fixtures would be brilliant. Lunyalita, our other restaurant in the Albert Dock, has a huge terrace, and it gets packed, but the weather can change quickly, and then you have 40 people who want to come in with glasses, plates and cutlery. It causes chaos.'

In Prague, it can be minus five degrees Celsius and people still sit out in enclosed spaces with patio heaters. Peter's main concern is to get certainty over the required distance between tables, because a two-metre rule means he can only fit 10 tables instead of the usual 48 in his Hanover Street restaurant, which is featured in The Good Food Guide 2020. A one-metre rule, on the other hand, would allow 32 tables.

Both Peter's restaurants are on car-free streets but he would also welcome more pedestrianisation in the city. It's what I love about Spanish cities, he says. ‘They get the deliveries in the morning, but by 11am all the vans are gone. It would be great if we moved to that. Liverpool would really benefit.
In Manchester, a quarter-mile stretch of Deansgate, a city centre street, has already been pedestrianised.

In London, meanwhile, various schemes are believed to be under consideration, such as more eating space on the South Bank and in Granary Square and Coal Drops Yard, King's Cross, while in Soho, a landlord has asked Westminster Council to approve the temporary exclusion of vehicles from a small number of streets in the area until the end of September.

John James, managing director of Soho Estates, says: Most of Soho's restaurants and cafes can't open safely while maintaining the social distancing required to kill off Covid-19. I am trying to come up with some practical ideas to reopen the vibrant Soho we all know and love. There are lots of logistical hurdles to overcome, but by making practical, short-term changes, we can allow life, business and families to be supported again. John's Soho Summer Street Festival campaign has been backed by nearly 6,000 people including personalities such as Stephen Fry, Damien Hirst and Yotam Ottolenghi. 

Originally published in Waitrose & Partners Weekend, view the latest issue online here.