The new cinema seating plans


Drinkers in Sheffield

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Things may look a little different this weekend, if you’re venturing out beyond the living room after months of lockdown.

An easing of coronavirus restrictions means cinemas, bars and restaurants can reopen on Saturday, 4 July.

But it won’t be all futuristic plastic pods, bubble booths or robot waiters, as your social-media feed might suggest.

New government guidelines say people from different households or “support bubbles” should stay 2m (6ft) apart indoors, where possible, but can come to within 1m of each other if they follow certain measures to reduce the spread of the virus – what the government calls “1m plus”.

And that, of course, poses significant challenges to those catering for people wanting to spend a night out together.

Back to the cinema

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Cinemas have already opened in France and other countries, with social distancing in force

From 4 July in England, multi-screen cinemas will stagger film start and end times, to avoid congestion in foyers.

There will be hand-sanitising stations and – don’t tell the kids – pick ‘n’ mix stands will be removed.

Film-lovers will also find a number of empty seats or rows between themselves and other groups, depending on the size of the cinema.

Admit One, which provides ticketing services for cinemas and multiplexes, says it can automatically enable socially distanced seating, creating “bubbles” of empty seats around groups when they book.

And some cinemas may not let customers choose where they sit, as this could affect their ability to reach maximum capacity.

The average seat in cinemas is about 60cm (2ft) wide and 97cm deep, Admit One says.

So to meet 2m distancing rules, cinemas would have had to block out 12 seats around a single cinemagoer, or 16 around a couple.

Allowing “1m plus” gives the option of other configurations.

But many cinemas may still be able to accommodate only about half the normal number of customers.

Carol Rennie, owner and operator of Keswick Alhambra Cinema, in Cumbria, says she’ll be able to fill 25% of the seats, at best.

The 107-year-old cinema, which can hold up to 248 in the stalls and balcony, will be open to a maximum of 60 cinemagoers, including 35 in the 150 seats in the stalls.

“We will get more people in if they come in groups but most will be in couples,” Ms Rennie says.

“Most of the year, we operate at about 20-25% capacity and a lot of the time it is quiet.

“But when we get to the school holidays, we expect at least 50%.

“So now, our maximum capacity will be our usual average-to-low.

“So there will be a big economic hit.”

Customers will queue outside.

And there will be a one-way system through the foyer into the auditorium, with people leaving through the fire exits.

That said, the Alhambra is taking a cautious approach to reopening and has decided to wait until 24 July to welcome back customers, as many of its regulars are in the older, more vulnerable age range.

British Film Industry chief executive Ben Roberts says many cinemas will need support to reopen after months of closure and the additional costs of implementing social-distancing measures.

Last of orders at the bar

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Restaurants, pubs and bars will also have to meet the new guidelines.

Many in the hospitality industry thought it would not have been viable to open under the 2m distancing rules.

But, Jonathan Neame, of the Shepherd Neame group, says, the change to 1m plus, in England, will make it “more operationally and financially viable” to begin reopening some of its pubs from 4 July.

Some temporary changes will include:

  • seated, table service only
  • screens between seating or tables
  • one-in-one-out system for toilets

Customers are also being asked to book in advance and order food and drink direct to their tables through smartphone apps.

Inside, people from only two households or “support bubbles” can sit together.

Outside, up to six people from a greater number of households or “support bubbles” can meet but must remain 2m apart, where they can. If not, they must keep at least 1m apart, while taking steps to reduce the risk of transmission such as wearing face coverings or not sitting face-to-face.

Some chains are limiting bookings to groups of six or eight, even if the household or social bubble group is larger.

At Toby Carvery, for example, there will be a maximum of six to a table and buffets will no longer be self-service but served by a chef to diners in a socially distanced queue.

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Lockdown has taken its toll on major names in the food industry, pushing some well known companies into administration, while others have been able to survive serving takeaways.

Jack Applebee says his Applebee’s Fish restaurant, in London’s Borough Market, will reopen, as the market itself is transforming into a Mediterranean-style plaza in the evenings, once the market traders have finished.

Tables in the covered market will be set at least 1m apart, floor markers will tell customers where to stand and staff will be wearing masks, even though face coverings are still compulsory on public transport only.

Mr Applebee says the market has allowed the restaurant to extend its outside space.

And even though he won’t have as many tables, it will be more manageable than reopening indoors.

“I personally think outside is a lot safer,” he says.

“I wouldn’t want to ask staff to work inside if I don’t feel comfortable inside.

“And it’s the summer – everyone wants to be outside.”

Other restaurants have been installing Perspex screens between dining tables to create a physical barrier between patrons.

The lengths people go to to reopen will of course depend on location, budget, and staffing, among other factors.

Indeed, some restaurants have decided not to reopen until much later in the year.

And for fine diners, Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton has suggested there may be changes needed to the way table service works.

He told the Evening Standard’s The Leader podcast there may be no more wine lectures at the table from sommeliers, until we have a coronavirus vaccine, and diners may even have to – brace yourselves – pour their own wine and water.

Anywhere else

In England, holiday accommodation, including hotels, B & Bs, cottages, campsites and caravan parks, can also reopen on 4 July, as well as hairdressers, museums and galleries.

In Northern Ireland, holiday accommodation reopened for business from 26 June, and pubs and restaurants can open on 3 July.

Decisions on hospitality and holidays in Wales are expected in early July.

In Scotland, it is hoped all holiday accommodation can open up from 15 July, along with indoor areas of pubs and restaurants and hairdressers and barbers. Beer gardens should be able to reopen from 6 July.

But if you’re longing for music gigs, comedy nights or live performances at the theatre, you’re going to have to wait a little longer, as these are still banned under the lockdown restrictions. There’s always bingo.



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