Restaurants and bars in London's Soho say they are struggling with a drop in trade after the council banned some businesses from using outdoor parasols, gazebos and heaters.
Hospitality operators are pleading for councillors to reverse the decision, which means customers are unable to sit outdoors in wet weather or be shaded from the sun.
Westminster City Council's al fresco initiative was widely praised when it launched last year and many Soho restaurants credited it with their survival. The scheme, which allowed businesses to increase outdoor seating, resumed on 12 April.
However, some hospitality venues in the area were told by the council two weeks ago that they could no longer use outdoor furniture such as parasols, gazebos and heaters due to it being a safety risk in the event of a fire, although chairs and tables were still allowed.
Impact on trade
"We probably lost about 15% of our business straight away," said Ruben Maza, director of Lobos Tapas on Frith Street, which has had to reduce staff hours due to a drop in trade.
"On a rainy day we lose a significant amount of customers because people don't come to Soho as they know there's no shelter.
"I think the amount of time it takes for a hospitality business to recover has been underestimated. Whoever made this decision got overconfident about the recovery when in reality there is still a very tough time ahead. It makes me scared we might have to go into survival mode again."
The Arts Theatre Club on Frith Street reinvented itself as a bar to survive the pandemic but owner Maria Constantinou said footfall had dropped without its outdoor shelter and signage.
"It's crazily bad weather, so although we've got the al fresco chairs there's nobody dining outside because it's wet," she said.
"Some customers do feel more comfortable sitting outside. We were giving people a choice as the government wants us to be responsible. [The council] needs to give businesses the tools to to do that."
John James, managing director of Soho Estates, one of the area's biggest landlords, said the council had been cooperative until now and questioned the reasons for the change.
"This al fresco initiative has been a huge success and this removal of furniture will kill it dead," he said.
"There are no workers or tourists coming back but Soho has looked busy. You almost think [Covid] is over, but it's not. There are 14 empty shops on Regent Street and five or six empty hospitality businesses in Wardour Street because there was no ability to trade in the street there."
Decision 'not taken lightly'
Westminster City Council said it had spoken with the London Fire Brigade about the issue, but it is ultimately the council's decision to stop the use of furniture.
A council spokesperson said: "We introduced al fresco dining during lockdown to encourage residents and visitors back to the West End. This has been a huge success creating more than 16,000 additional covers across the borough – the highest number in London – many of which are in the Soho area.
"However, as footfall has started to increase, we have had to put the safety of the public first. Having taken advice from the London Fire Brigade, we have had to ask some businesses with pavement licences not to use gazebos, umbrellas and heaters when al fresco dining is in place. This will help enable a smooth evacuation of the area in the event of an emergency.
"We didn't take this decision lightly, however the safety of people visiting our incredible restaurants, bars and other attractions in Westminster is our top priority."
A spokesperson from London Fire Brigade said it was encouraging businesses to "get back to normal", adding: "We are working with the local council to ensure al fresco furniture doesn't impact upon our response.
"We have also provided fire prevention advice to local businesses, such as how to keep fire escapes clear, cooking safety and maintenance of ducting."
Hospitality business owners in the area told The Caterer they were keen to work with the council and emergency services to overturn the ban by ensuring outdoor furniture could be safely removed.
"I would like to see if there's still a chance that we can somehow turn it around," said Maza. "It's way too early to say we're out of the hole we fell in to when the lockdowns happened."
The overall Soho al fresco scheme is due to end on 30 September and a consultation on making it permanent will run from October to November.
Image: Shutterstock / cktravels.com