How the U.K. Restarted Its Restaurant Industry: Paying Half the Bill

The government’s dining discount could be particularly effective at getting people out to eat on their lunch breaks, Mr. Vlaev said. “It’s a very powerful way to change people by habituating their behavior because they then act on autopilot,” he said.

The second force is known as “psychological commitment,” Mr. Vlaev said: In order to get people to agree to a large request, you get them to agree to something small first. People in Britain might agree to take advantage of the restaurant discount, but once they are out and enjoying themselves the government can more easily ask them to return to offices, gyms, theaters and so on.

So far, the experiment is working.

A survey by CGA found that nearly 40 percent of people using the Eat Out to Help Out discount were dining out for the first time since the national lockdown began in late March — a sign it is winning over people who had gotten used to staying at home. The discount was also encouraging families and older customers to go back out, Ms. Nicholls of UKHospitality said. There have been no reports of spikes in coronavirus cases tied to the program.

But even if the customers want to keep coming back, restaurants face a lot of uncertainty.

Half of Britain’s restaurants are still closed, Ms. Nicholls said. Across the hospitality industry, businesses that are open are making only about 70 percent of their pre-pandemic revenue. The government has reduced the VAT, a type of sales tax, on food and nonalcoholic drinks, but this will expire in January. The government also put a moratorium on forfeiture of commercial properties because of unpaid rent for six months, effectively allowing businesses to delay rent payments until the end of September, when the next three months of rent will be due.

That heavy rent debt, building up for over the last six months, is “the single biggest outstanding issue” facing restaurants and the hospitality industry generally, Ms. Nicholls said.

And while the Eat Out to Help Out program can help change consumer behavior, it doesn’t address how each establishment will make up for reduced capacity because of social distancing measures, or what will happen when it’s too cold to dine outside. A recent survey by the Office for National Statistics found that just 43 percent of people felt comfortable eating indoors.

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