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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

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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