Freedom Day delay is a financial blow to local businesses
- Credit: Paul Winch-Furness
Local businesses have faced another financial blow following the decision to delay the further relaxation of lockdown restrictions.
The decision to postpone Freedom Day was taken by the government to try and control the spread of the Delta variant of Covid, and means the limits on numbers for events and for pubs, cinemas and theatres will remain the same until July 19.
The four extra weeks will have a huge impact on some of the district's small businesses as well as events which were counting on a June 21 date out of lockdown.
Although weddings are allowed to go ahead without restrictions on numbers, restrictions such as tables with a maximum six people, table service only and a ban on dancing indoors, many brides and grooms are delaying their big day yet again.
Adam Atkins from Peddling Pizza said: “Basically it’s holding me back from booking private events. I have a party for 60-70 on June 26 that now has to cut numbers and another wedding on July 3 that was for 90-100 guests. Luckily they are both going ahead with lower numbers but I will lose out significantly financially.”
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Although Peddling Pizza is a familiar sight at the St Albans Charter Market, Adam relies heavily on his income from events, supplying pizzas for weddings and parties in the summer evenings.
“Last year I lost around £20,000 in earnings from private events that didn’t happen. The majority of the weddings and parties I cater for would usually be for 50-150 guests. Most places would run at a loss doing events for a maximum of 30 guests.”
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Local events company Dirty Stereo Promotions has changed the date for its three-day outdoor event three times already, and the delay to the lifting of restrictions means yet another date change.
Director Carl Willis said: “Our Come Together Party is a three-date dance music festival with more than 80 DJs, at Springfield Farm. The event was scheduled to take place from July 16-18 but will now take place from July 30 to August 1.
“Every date change we lose customers as they can’t all make the same date. Yes, we also gain customers but it seems not as many as we lose. We have had to pay large deposits to suppliers and acts.
“With ticketing and going through ticket agencies they hold on to the money until the event goes ahead. With all these date changes we have to pay out for more marketing costs of printing posters, banners, leaflets, radio advertising. That alone runs in to thousands.
“Our other issue is that most customers are holding off buying tickets as they have zero confidence as to when events will open up.
"Many have tickets for events bought last year which they are sitting on for indoor club events, and festival tickets. Many of the larger festivals have gone bust and lots more will, and us smaller organisers just won’t bother if this persistent date changes keep happening.”
Changing the date isn’t an option for St Albans Film Festival director Leoni Kibbey, as a giant screen has already been installed in the garden of Ye Olde Fighting Cocks where the garden cinema is being held this year.
Leoni is disappointed that her event will now be severely restricted.
“The delay to Freedom Day will affect us as we’ll have to reduce the number of tickets we sell. It’s a real shame as we wanted as many people as possible to get out to our garden cinema and now we’re worried that we won’t even break even now.
"Still, we will be going ahead with the four dates, kicking off on24 June 24 with Cocktail and then June 25 with Dirty Dancing and then on July 8 and 9 showing Parasite and a singalong version of Rocketman.
"We will be doing what we can to bring some enjoyment back to the city, but people had better book quickly to avoid disappointment now!”
For Fighting Cocks landlord Christo Tofalli it is a double blow. He has once again had his dreams of a pub garden filled with football fans scuppered.
“We have rented a giant screen for the garden for our customers to watch the Euros and for us to recoup the money that we have spent on the screen, we really needed social distancing to end on June 21.
“This news is doubly hard to take as we have invested so much money in the pub to cater for the easing of social distancing restrictions, something we would not have done if we had known there was no chance of this happening.
“And while commercially, this is just another nail in the coffin for the hospitality industry this year, I do think it is the right decision to ensure that we don’t have a third wave.
"However, we need the government to help out the industry so that we can survive the year. When they make decisions like this, they need to be mindful that hospitality businesses have already made investments that they will need financial support with.”
Matt Elvidge, company director of Farr Brew, the local micro-brewery and six-strong pub group, which includes The Elephant and Castle in Amwell, agrees that while it might be the right decision for safety, there are huge financial challenges for small businesses, and the government should support them more.
“From a commercial perspective, it makes life challenging for us as we had planned ahead for a summer without social distancing, but I believe the decision is the right one an ethical level.
"The last thing we need is a third wave; the country and businesses have suffered enough and if delaying helps to ensure everyone is vaccinated, then I support that decision.
“What the government could really do to help hospitality businesses is to reduce VAT on alcohol like they have done on food until the pandemic is over. As we have been closed for such a long time, we are still playing catch-up on our VAT bills and furlough bills for our PAYE staff like so many other businesses, so help with VAT would be hugely helpful.
“Furlough was fantastic for our staff and ensured they could feed themselves but it has left companies with huge PAYE bills that are now due and are putting hospitality companies in massive debt.”
Andrei Lussmann, owner of local sustainable restaurant group Lussmanns, agreed: "It's another situation that hospitality businesses are having to react to with lightning speed.
"And is really testing the ability of restaurants to be flexible and agile in staying on top of these ever-changing conditions. It's a shame because the demand from my customers to come back to Lussmanns is very high and we'd like to accommodate every person who wishes to eat with us.
"But I agree that we have to be cautious to avoid a third wave. However there's no question that hospitality should be getting more financial support from the government because these last minute changes penalise us financially each time."
St Albans’ arts and culture organisations are also suffering from the push back of Freedom Day.
Adam Nichols, artistic director of The Maltings Theatre and the Roman Theatre open air festival says that the end of social distancing on June 21 would have meant he could have sold more tickets for the festival which finishes on July 11.
“That would have enabled us to recoup some of the costs associated with putting on a seven-week festival with a varied programme,” he said.
“To group an outdoor theatre with indoor theatres – as far as these restrictions are concerned – is less logical than to group it with other outdoor attractions.
"People are seated, it’s a very controlled environment, people aren’t moving around that much within the space, so our view would be that it’s a much safer environment than a lot of other outdoor leisure attractions. Of course we want all theatres to reopen fully as soon as possible, but we know that outdoors is a lot safer than indoors.”
Farhana Begum, business manager for St Albans Museums, said she hasn’t been able to hold private events at the museums with the current restrictions.
“We’re really looking forward to when the restrictions are fully lifted so that we can resume holding private hire events at both the Verulamium Museum and the St Albans Museum + Gallery.
"Our unique historic spaces are perfect for weddings and celebrations and it’s been a difficult year of delays and postponements for our clients. The museums have always been lively places filled with people and we’re looking forward to getting back to that in the near future.
Our new exhibition exploring medieval manuscripts will open just in time for the July Freedom Day, which we hope will mean that lots more people can come and see it!
The Prime Minister said on Monday he is “confident that we will not need more than four weeks", but local hospitality, arts and events businesses are very much hoping that this confidence is not misplaced yet again.