Architect’s Thoughts: Measures for Businesses to Re-open Safely

In recent months along Charlotte Street, we have seen the introduction of a follow-the-arrow system for pedestrians. Charlotte Street is fairly peaceful and most people generally follow the system, plus there is also less of a crowd with a few small groups sitting alfresco that looks like regulars from the neighbourhood. Just a minute away on a parallel road, Tottenham Court Road, the scene is quite different. Tottenham Court Road is a hotspot for cafes, restaurants and retail shops. As these businesses are gradually opening to customers, some drawings large crowds, what measures can restauranteurs and retailers do to re-open safely?

1. Spatial layouts with the density of people in mind

Both restaurants and retail shops will be expected to limit the number of customers within an indoor space at any one time. Spatial layouts of these businesses may need to be reconfigured to accommodate a safe amount of customers. Although the rules are now relaxed from the two-metre distancing rule to 1m-plus, have a good understanding of your existing space, find out if you can make use of your immediate outdoor space, and evaluate what you can do with your current furniture. With these information, you can probably work out a strategy to allow customers to enter your business location safely. For cafes and restaurants with small tables that can be easily moved, one can easily move it around to work out the maximum capacity within the 1m-plus distancing. For businesses with large sharing tables, consider other creative approaches such as back-to-back seatings only and screens to physically separate customers.

During the summer period now, the weather is lovely so we are fortunate to be able to make full use of the outdoor setting. A good example is where our neighbour Soho’s local campaign won the right to pedestrianise its streets for a Super Sunday which allowed restaurants and cafes to set up tables outside for an increased in outdoor capacity.

2. Physical separation for hygiene

Common examples to physically separate customers for hygiene in cafes and restaurants are perspex screens and partitions between tables and between displayed food. Protective coverings on large items like sofas and banquette seats may need to be considered too.

In the retail environment, fitting rooms should be closed whenever possible due to the challenges in operating them safely. If they do open, ensure a dedicated staff is assigned to keep track and clean them after each use. There should also be a protocol to manage the garments that have been tried on as per the government’s guidance. As the first level of hygiene maintenance in retail shops, transparent garment covers can act as physical separation and protect the garments while surfaces are being cleaned.

For retailers and restauranteurs who are looking at longer-term strategies, a deliberate choice in materials in your business environment is also one method to minimise risks. For example, actively choosing materials that minimise the time the new coronavirus can survive.

3. Reachability of display items

The location of items displayed in shops and restaurants should be carefully considered. With some planning on how items are displayed and reached, you can limit the amount customers handle garments and merchandises. Think about how your customers typically browse in-store pre-pandemic, modify the display method to suit which can range from having employees to handle items only, or have one item only displayed in a way similar to a tester item to minimise customers from touching a majority of items in-store, thereby reducing the load of the regular cleaning needed.

A small but important note is to have clear notice of what your business is doing and what you expect from customers. I say this from personal experience as I took a long walk last weekend and arrived in a nearby neighbourhood that I do not frequent. Feeling thirsty, I entered a cafe to purchase a drink but was stopped abruptly. Why? The cafe has an uncommunicated policy that limits the number of customers indoors at any one time.

Happy to connect with local businesses about re-opening safely, from a simple sense check on your strategy to a major change in your business presence. Stay safe.

Article written by Von Chua. First published on Fitzrovia Centre’s Newsletter – Thoughts from Fitzrovia Centre on 31/07/2020. Von Chua is a Chartered Architect living and working in Fitzrovia. Passionate about art, branding and heritage buildings, she leads the creative directions at Von X Architects (www.vonxarchitects.com), a small studio with big experiences working across architecture and interiors projects. From the straightforward interior design refurbishment through to the complex multi-unit residential development, Von X Architects work carefully with limited resources and apply the same design thinking.