Christmas is coming but the mood in the Welsh hospitality industry is none too merry. The festive bubble popped yesterday when First Minister Mark Drakeford announced new rules aimed at controlling a spike in coronavirus cases, particularly among those aged under 25. The latest regulations target hospitality venues including restaurants, bars and cafés, which will be banned from selling alcohol and forced to close by 6pm as of Friday, December 4.
The news has dealt another severe blow to the country’s already struggling leisure and hospitality industry in what is ordinarily one of the busiest periods of the year. In a move the CAMRA, Campaign for Real Ale, describes as “devastating and draconian”, many pubs and restaurants – perfectly Covid prepped, with decorations already put up – are now cancelling Christmas parties and turkey orders and shutting their doors until the new year – or in some instances for good.
“We kind of knew this was coming but it’s nevertheless devastating,” says Paul Grimwood, director of Ultracomida, which runs a pair of deli-restaurants in the coastal towns of Narberth and Aberystwyth, as well as Curado and Vermut in Cardiff. “Wales depends upon tourism and hospitality is at the heart of that. We’ve been singled out as a sector for some time without any data to back up the narrative. It feels like we’re being scapegoated. For the maximum number of businesses to survive we need the Government to stop the stop-start pattern, which is extraordinarily punishing both mentally and financially. Come up with easily accessible financial support delivered quickly and a plan that takes us to spring. Make the message simple so that the public and businesses understand. We’re not looking for hand-outs – just don’t throw an entire industry off a cliff.”
Instead of opting for a tiered system like England and Scotland, Mark Drakeford has opted for a broad-brush, one-size-fits-all approach, which many businesses in rural regions with low rates of infection deem unfair.
“The First Minister’s announcement is a real disappointment for the hospitality industry, says Sarah Hudson, owner of The Bell at Skenfrith, a 17th-century coaching inn with a highly regarded restaurant on the River Monnow in Monmouthshire, a stone’s throw from the English border. “Everyone has gone to such lengths to implement all the necessary Covid-safe measures and now we can’t serve any measures! It’s been particularly hard for us here having only just got back on our feet after being closed due to floods for nearly a year.”
Others restaurateurs and publicans are worried about the uncertainty still clouding the horizon. How long will these restrictions go on for? What comes next? One recurring criticism is that the Welsh Government should have been more transparent and informative from the outset, enabling businesses to plan accordingly.
“The regulations are as clear as mud,” says Louise Sykes, the owner of boutique hotel and restaurant Llys Meddyg in the coastal town of Newport in Pembrokeshire. “It’s unclear how we should cater for guests. With Christmas and New Year around the corner, we all need more certainty so that we can weigh up our options. Guests are already cancelling plans to stay with us in the coming weeks and we feel ill prepared to answer their questions.”
Sandra Hughes, chef-proprietor at the Neuadd Fawr Arms, a country pub in the pretty Carmarthenshire village of Cilycwm, echoes these sentiments. “I anticipated this happening and made a decision last week to close until spring,” she says. “It has made our business totally unviable and will impact the mental health of many in a very rural area where the local pub is a lifeline. We can’t keep opening and shutting doors. Hospitality isn’t the problem. Now more people will buy supermarket Christmas booze and gather in houses. It’s not rocket science.”
Mark Power, owner-director of the US-style Smoke Haus diners in Swansea and Cardiff wholeheartedly agrees. “These new rules are not going to make any difference whatsoever,” he opines. “People in Wales will not forego a drink this year at Christmas. Supermarkets will get even wealthier and people will drink at house parties, and without the safety measures we have in place. We were told the firebreak would get us to mid January. We’ve jumped through all the hoops – sanitizer, two metres distance, track and trace, yet here we are again three weeks later. What a joke!”
Can't find the equivalent for Wales, but in England the outbreaks are clearly happening AWAY from hospitality settings.... Pubs and restraunts have rules more strictly enforced and supervised than anywhere. Just an easy target.
Really starting to lose my support! pic.twitter.com/1hQmeqKu1u
— Martin Gruffydd (@MGruffydd) November 30, 2020
Under the new regulations indoor entertainment venues and attractions, including museums and galleries, will also be forced to close in a move that Welsh Association of Visitor Attractions (WAVA) describe as “scandalous”, with Santa trips now off the cards and many attractions now “hanging on by their fingertips”.
Beyond the new regulations coming into force for businesses, there is the concern that the latest rules are just tip-of-the-iceberg stuff. The question looming in the minds of many is what will happen when England’s lockdown ends on December 2. Will the borders remain open? Will the Welsh be permitted to travel? Or will many people with relatives on the other side of the Severn Bridge be lonely this Christmas?