Whilst we are in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, with no end in sight, it’s easy to forget that normal life will resume at some point. The share price of many quoted leisure companies (including those operating betting shops, casinos, pubs and restaurants) has dropped by 40 percent or more, in the expectation that closures will last for a significant period of time. Operators are busy cutting costs, furloughing staff, arranging emergency loans and deferring payments to keep their businesses afloat. Sadly, as we are seeing in the press, there will be casualties. Some operators do not have the financial resources to cling on.

One day, in the not-too-distant future, infection rates will fall, and the UK lockdown will be eased. In a phased way, relative normality will return. Whilst we must not forget those who have died from COVID-19 and those who have worked so hard in the NHS to defeat it, preparations should start for that day now. China’s experience has given us a good time frame for how long the peak of the pandemic will last and how long it will be before business can resume.

Following the first reported deaths in China in mid-January 2020, Wuhan was locked down on 23 January 2020. Lockdowns followed throughout Hubei Province shortly afterwards, closely followed by other cities in mainland China.

In the UK in February 2020, coronavirus was something happening thousands of miles away, which we thought was unlikely to reach us. We attended ICE, an international gambling show, at Excel in London on 5 February 2020. Very few people were talking about the risks of COVID-19, even though many of those attending were from the Far East. Less than two months later, Excel is Nightingale Hospital, equipped with 4,000 critical care beds to treat coronavirus patients.

Officials are attempting to restart the Chinese economy after an unprecedented nationwide shutdown, whilst also trying to prevent another outbreak. On 27 March 2020 (less than a week ago) Wuhan finally lifted its two-month lockdown, resumed local transportation and allowed some businesses and leisure venues to reopen. Bars and restaurants reopened with shortened hours and for limited numbers of customers. Entry to licensed premises is permitted only for customers whose temperature has been checked.

Fugong Fuchan (“resuming work, resuming production”) has not been straightforward in China and a nervousness prevails. Cinemas briefly reopened and were then ordered to shut again. In Shanghai, indoor tourist attractions were suspended. In the city of Jinzhou, clubs, karaoke bars and entertainment venues were told to suspend operations immediately. Sichuan Province has ordered all entertainment venues to shut. Strict measures are in place to ensure that the virus does not return for a second wave. This includes restrictions on foreigners entering China to prevent “imported” infection.

The situation in China indicates that governments should not rush into easing restrictions purely for the sake of the economy. Other countries will have different rates of infection and quarantine measures, but it is possible to predict when life in the UK may return to some sort of normality. Pubs in the UK were closed on Friday 20 March 2020, with lockdown commencing on Monday 23 March 2020. Assuming a 9-week lockdown period, similar to that in Wuhan, UK businesses may be able to reopen in late May/early June 2020. In the UK, it is likely that a phased reopening of businesses will be permitted, so that the government can monitor transmission rates.

The leisure trade in the UK may want to consider these issues to prepare for reopening:

  • There will be a huge demand to go out to celebrate the end of a 2-month confinement. However, a rush to the pub will risk overcrowding, which could lead to a second wave of the virus. Relaxing restrictions on premises may have to be phased by the government to ensure that licensed premises are not packed to the rafters.
  • It is likely that the government will permit leisure premises only to open for restricted hours initially. There is likely to be a phased reopening of different types of premises. Leisure premises which bring customers into close proximity and for longer periods of time (e.g. cinemas, nightclubs, music venues) may be closed for a longer period.
  • Premises may be required to serve customers at tables (indoors and outdoors) to avoid queues at the bar. If this is a requirement, additional staff members will be required to meet this demand.
  • Outdoor spaces will be at a premium, particularly as we hit better weather coming into summer and with customers avoiding enclosed spaces. Operators will need to ensure that they have obtained/renewed pavement café licences in preparation for this and that they have staff on hand to provide table service outdoors if this is a requirement.
  • Door supervisors may need to monitor entry to prevent overcrowding at all times and to ensure safe distancing of customers internally. Restrictions are likely to apply throughout the day and not just during peak times. Are there enough SIA registered door supervisors to meet this demand?
  • Whilst we have not really used temperature testing to identify asymptomatic individuals in the UK, this has been shown to be effective in China. Premises may be required to check the temperature of customers before allowing them to enter. If this requirement is introduced, a significant number of infra-red forehead thermometers will be required. Are there enough thermometers available to meet this demand?
  • If temperature checks are required, door supervisors or staff members will also be needed to take and record temperatures and to deny access to those with signs of infection. Again, are there enough door supervisors available to meet this demand?
  • Whilst the use of cash has already been declining, customers will avoid cash due to viral transmission concerns and leisure premises will very rapidly become cashless.
  • Specific premises will have specific requirements; for example, betting shops will need to clean touchscreen terminals and surfaces more frequently and casinos will need to implement chip cleaning. Hygiene and sanitisation will be key measures in all premises where the public congregate.
  • The wearing of face masks has not really been widespread in the UK, so it is unlikely that requirements to wear them in public will be introduced here.

It is also worth considering whether you might need to make any changes to licences now in advance of reopening. Licence applications are still being processed by councils despite the lockdown. Operators may wish to consider varying hours or conditions or seeking approval to make structural alterations whilst premises are closed.

Clearly there are things the leisure industry can be doing now to prepare for the end of lockdown. It is possible that adopting some of these measures earlier and having clear procedures in place will allow the government to relax restrictions sooner. However, there is a risk that if the restrictions are eased too soon, premises will again have to be closed, as is the case in parts of China.

We all want to get back to relative normality and safe socialising as soon as possible. Only when the virus has truly been defeated will we be able to really celebrate. What a party that will be!

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This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.