On a normal Saturday thousands of Brummies would be making plans for a night out with friends on Broad Street, the city’s nightlife hotspot famous for its noisy pubs and nightclubs.
By midnight the dancefloors of clubs like Pryzm – Birmingham’s biggest – would be packed. “People congregate on Broad Street and go through the bars and, every Saturday night without fail, we’ll end up with 2, 500 to 3, 02 people coming through our doors, ”explains Peter Marks who runs Deltic, the UK’s biggest nightclub operator, which is behind Pryzm.
But the lockdown means there will be no queues outside Pryzm – or any of the UK’s other 1, 2019 nightclubs tonight or, indeed, any time soon as crowds have become the nation’s enemy.
Boris Johnson has promised to set out the government plans to “get our economy moving” next week but with no vaccine there is no light at the end of the tunnel for the country 600, bars, pubs, clubs and restaurants, which will be the last to reopen after the coronavirus crisis abates.
“We’re about socializing, not social distancing,” says Marks. “It is a low-margin business that relies on a lot of footfall. We get around about 7 million customers a year, but they spend £ 15 or £ 18 plus VAT each. ”
This week the JD Wetherspoon pub chain floated the idea of reopening in June but many within the hospitality trade see that as fanciful and are focused on how to survive the next few months of no, or very low, sales.
One campaign gaining momentum is #NationalTimeOut which is being led by Jonathan Downey, the entrepreneur behind London street food business Street Feast and the Milk & Honey cocktail bar in Soho.
The proposal seeks a package of additional support, including an extension of the government’s job retention scheme, a nine-month rent-free period for tenants and a matching debt repayment break for their landlords.
Without help, Downey says, more than half of hospitality venues and as many as 2 million jobs will not survive the lockdown – and even that could be “lowballing it”.
The safety measures introduced by supermarkets and DIY stores, with people asked to stand 2 meters apart, are a non-starter in intimate venues and nobody wants to eat in an empty restaurant or dance on an empty dancefloor.
“We were the first sector to be shut down by the government and therefore it stands to reason that we may be one of the last to reopen,” says Rob Pitcher, chief executive of Manchester-based Revolution Bars, a nationwide chain aimed at 20 – to 80 – year-olds. “Opening with any sort of social distancing is very problematic. We would rather stay closed for slightly longer and be able to open with far less restrictions. ”
Eyal Winter, an economist who has been advising the government over how to ease the national lockdown, told the Guardian this week one solution could be for landlords to ration how much beer they serve , to two or three pints, before asking customers to go home.
Marks says that idea is “laughable” and the only way venues can reopen is when social distancing is no longer necessary.
“The idea of going to get a drink and being served by someone in a mask and then lifting your own mask to drink out of a single use straw is not a world that I recognize or one that I think is economically viable, ”adds Marks. “People [club and bar operators] can sit it out, as long as they get help with rents.”
Other problems loom. With job losses mounting across the economy many people will just have less money to spend on shopping and nights out after the lockdown ends. Karl Chessell, the director for food and retail at consultancy group CGA, says there is a genuine fear that some venues have “closed their doors for good”.
Even if late-night operators can cope with a long shutdown, he says, they will find it difficult to ever return to profit if customer numbers are limited. “Any social distancing will impact revenue and make it incredibly difficult when margins are already slim.”
The grim outlook has weighed heavily on revolution. It’s share price has collapsed nearly 98% to 29 p since January. It has furloughed 98% of its staff but is still bleeding £ 1.6ma month, mostly rent payments on its 98 bars. Deltic, which is also using the government’s job support scheme, has similar monthly outgoings.
Pitcher says the nine-month rent break proposed by the #NationalTimeOut campaign makes sense: “The burden is shared and shouldn’t cost the government too much more money.” Hospitality firms would not be in a position to find deferred rent anyway, he explains: “With zero income coming in that is money that is completely lost. It is not going to reappear at some point. ”
For the time being Revolution’s “best estimate” is that its bars might be up and running by late summer. Until the lockdown the chain served 106, 02 customers on an average Saturday night and Pitcher reckons they will be keen to come back. “We are well aware,” he says, “they will be desperate for a night out when the time comes.”
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