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COVID-19 is making it hard for London businesses to “keep calm and carry on”

Victoria Craig Mar 18, 2020
Jesse Dunford Wood, chef and owner of Parlour restaurant pub in London, at work in his kitchen. Lauren McLean

COVID-19 is making it hard for London businesses to “keep calm and carry on”

Victoria Craig Mar 18, 2020
Jesse Dunford Wood, chef and owner of Parlour restaurant pub in London, at work in his kitchen. Lauren McLean

“Keep calm and carry on” read the iconic British government posters ahead of World War II. Businesses in London are finding it harder to “carry on” with this virus on the loose and nations just across the English Channel on lockdown.

One restaurant trying to find its footing in this new reality is Parlour, a pub in northwest London near Notting Hill. Although chefs there have been busy prepping for dinner service each night, the kitchen is about to fall silent.

That’s because, at the government’s advice, customers are staying at home rather than eating out in the hope of preventing further spread of COVID-19.

That means owner and chief Jesse Dunford Wood is facing a tough decision about the future of his business.

“We’ve gotta cut staff, be vigilant on our stock levels with drink and food,” he said. “I’ve got to take a hit, they have to take a hit, the supplies will have to take a hit. Maybe we just press pause on Friday and press play when everyone’s clear again.”

Wood isn’t alone.

Britain’s hospitality industry accounts for about $130 billion of the nation’s economic output.

But the last 10 days have been brutal.

Industry group UKHospitality, which represents 700 of those pubs, hotels and restaurants, says businesses have taken in 60% less money than usual and customer visits have plunged 40%.

On Tuesday, the British government ripped up an emergency budget just six days old and unveiled a more robust plan to fight what the it calls an “economic emergency.”

It includes nearly $400 billion worth of loans, $24 billion in aid, property-tax relaxation for all businesses and grants for pubs and retailers.

Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, welcomes the news.

“This is a serious and massive package of measures,” she said. “Loans going out at that scale into businesses is a good thing. The challenge is to get them out the door, and banks need to work on that.”

Some businesses say they’re worried about the new loan offer because it requires them to take on more debt in an already difficult period.

Fairbairn said more needs to be done to offer immediate support.

“There are some very large tax bills hitting companies in the next few weeks, and so seeing if they can be cancelled or deferred will help people stay in jobs and help businesses keep their employees,” she said.

Despite the uncertainty and turmoil on the industry, Wood is trying to find the silver lining.

“You hear about people losing lots of product,” he said. “I’m just lucky I’m not in the fish business, because that’s something you need to get rid of immediately. We will succeed, we will survive and we will get through this with true British grit.”

Until then, Jesse and his team are taking one day at a time until they’re told they can’t carry on.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What does the unemployment picture look like?

It depends on where you live. The national unemployment rate has fallen from nearly 15% in April down to 8.4% percent last month. That number, however, masks some big differences in how states are recovering from the huge job losses resulting from the pandemic. Nevada, Hawaii, California and New York have unemployment rates ranging from 11% to more than 13%. Unemployment rates in Idaho, Nebraska, South Dakota and Vermont have now fallen below 5%.

Will it work to fine people who refuse to wear a mask?

Travelers in the New York City transit system are subject to $50 fines for not wearing masks. It’s one of many jurisdictions imposing financial penalties: It’s $220 in Singapore, $130 in the United Kingdom and a whopping $400 in Glendale, California. And losses loom larger than gains, behavioral scientists say. So that principle suggests that for policymakers trying to nudge people’s public behavior, it may be better to take away than to give.

How are restaurants recovering?

Nearly 100,000 restaurants are closed either permanently or for the long term — nearly 1 in 6, according to a new survey by the National Restaurant Association. Almost 4.5 million jobs still haven’t come back. Some restaurants have been able to get by on innovation, focusing on delivery, selling meal or cocktail kits, dining outside — though that option that will disappear in northern states as temperatures fall. But however you slice it, one analyst said, the United States will end the year with fewer restaurants than it began with. And it’s the larger chains that are more likely to survive.

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