IT has been heartening in recent days to see and hear about operators in the hospitality sector preparing for reopening this coming Monday.

News of refurbished hotels and bars and revamped food and drink offers has been flowing steadily into the inbox as reinvigorated business owners gear up to welcome the public again.

With the sector having been stuck in cold storage since Boxing Day – four long months ago – the prospect of people being able to enjoy al fresco pints and glasses of wine in beer gardens offers further tangible evidence that a degree of “normal” life is within reach.

And it is important not to underplay the mental health benefits that the reopening of hospitality will bring. This applies to the thousands of workers who have been furloughed and unable to do what they do best for months, and the business owners who have been virtually powerless to stop the bills racking up while they have been unable to trade.

It goes, too, for consumers who have been cooped up for months, in many cases denied the chance to see family, friends and colleagues in person for long periods.

The role played by pubs in bringing communities together has long been celebrated by those who work in the industry, but never has it been more evident than in the difficult months of the last year. The reopening of the industry, therefore, will rightly be cherished up and down the country.

However, it must be emphasised that it will not all be plain sailing for operators from here on in.

Amid the continuing effort to suppress coronavirus infection rates, and growing fears of a third wave later in the year, it is unlikely the path ahead will be smooth.

We have already had a controversial episode this week. Operators were enraged when draft guidance from law-makers appeared to suggest that outlets would need to accommodate tables that are a minimum of 3.5 metres by 2m in size in order for six people to be seated while the 1m social distancing requirement is met. (The rules on easing restrictions will permit up to six people from two households to socialise in an indoor hospitality setting from April 26).

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Illustrations outlining the proposals were circulated on social media and quickly led to fears that there are just not enough tables out there to satisfy demand. It was also pointed out that many hundreds of premises in Scotland are simply not big enough to be viable should tables of this size be needed.

“The official document has caused fears that the social distancing has been extended because they have a table that shows a 3.5m table that is required for six people,” was the response from Stephen Montgomery, spokesman for the Scottish Hospitality Group and owner of the Townhead Hotel in Lockerbie.

“Nobody has a table of that size. There is all the panic of trying to source tables.”

The controversy appeared to fizzle out relatively quickly, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declaring on Tuesday that the requirements for physical distancing in hospitality had not changed. Ms Sturgeon said cafes and restaurants continue to be exempt from the 2m distancing rule that applies in other settings.

But there is no doubt the episode caused a further, unwelcome distraction for business owners as they prepare to reopen.

The row will certainly have done nothing to dispel the suspicions of those who argue the Scottish Government has not sufficiently prioritised or understood the needs of business throughout the course of the pandemic. Indeed, writing in The Herald this week, Liz Cameron, chief executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce, reiterated the organisation’s call for a “major reset of the relationship government has with business.”

Ms Cameron wrote: “It has become painfully obvious that the priorities of business, which are shared by anyone to whom jobs and prosperity are important, are not aligned with the priorities of the Scottish Government.”

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Returning specifically to hospitality, the immediate concerns of the industry are not limited to rows over schematic illustrations of dining tables.

While operators will be delighted at the prospect of trading again, it will be some time before they are able to operate at full capacity.

Under the first phase of reopening, hospitality outlets will not be permitted to serve alcohol indoors, and must close inside areas by 8pm. It will not be until May 17, when Scotland is expected to move into Level Two restrictions, that patrons will be allowed to have an alcoholic drink inside licensed premises.

Admittedly, it is less than a month now until May 17 but, in the context of an industry that has been unable to operate since Boxing Day, every second counts. Indeed, there are already serious concerns about the level of debt that has been rising in the industry, which will take years to pay off. For while the furlough scheme has played a vital role in supporting wages, other expensive overheads have still had to be paid at a time when cash is not flowing through the tills.

Research published by the Scottish Licensed Trade Association earlier this year revealed the average pub has taken on between £60,000 and £90,000 of debt since the crisis began. “That was in February,” spokesman Paul Waterson remarked. “They will be working for a year to pay that back.”

At least pubs can look forward to opening, which is not something that can be said for everyone in the wider licensed trade. More than a year since the pandemic erupted, nightclubs and live music venues are still firmly in the dark when it comes to their reopening prospects. With debts continuing to mount, and grant support coming to an end this month, it is little wonder the Night Time Industries Association warned this week of an “unemployment tsunami”. It is feared as many as 24,000 jobs are at risk “within weeks”.

Spokesman Gavin Stevenson said: “Scottish Government now has only two options, provide substantial and immediate additional support for as long as it is mandated that our businesses stay closed and/ or operate under the restrictions that make them unviable, or provide a clear route map with target dates for the end of all legal restrictions on capacity, activity and opening hours.

“If neither of those options are forthcoming then our First Minister is, in effect, asking thousands of Scottish business owners to bankrupt themselves.”

Politicians currently on the campaign trail, who are seeking a mandate to form the next Scottish Government, would be well advised to listen.