Beer. It’s fantastic. And as nice as a bottle from the fridge is, nothing beats a pint at your favourite pub: a fact so simple, even our illustrious leader (“illustrious” meaning “incompetent” and “leader” meaning “bumbling oaf”) agrees and is keen to get to his local boozer. And whatever your tipple, thanks to Johnson’s latest wild stab in the dark at introducing a sensible policy, you’ll soon be able to enjoy it at the pub once more. That’s right, this Saturday, 4th July, the two-metre social distancing rule is being halved to… hang on… divided by… carry the two… one metre. As a result, pubs, cafes and restaurants are able to reopen!! News that was met with unbridled joy across the nation, and a raft of hilarious reactions.
This is huge news for an industry that’s been decimated since 20th March when all pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants were instructed to close, to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Since then, other than a few exceptions, such as cafes in schools, hospitals and prisons (god, prisoners have all the luck), the closest these businesses have been able to get to normality, and generate some sort of limited income, has been offering food delivery and takeaway services, and some pubs have been able to offer takeaway beers and wines. But to open their doors and allow us back in once more is clearly the biggest step back towards normality thus far, both for the hospitality industry, and the community at large.
Government guidelines as to how a visit to a pub might look are, in Conservative tradition, patchy at best, and are set to be updated again soon. But for now what is certain is that it will be different to pre-lockdown in the following ways: there will be mandatory table service rather than ordering at the bar, there will be increased cleaning of tables and chairs and use of hand sanitizer, and we’ll have to give our contact details to staff in case they need to contact if another customer tests positive for Covid-19.
So, a visit to your local may be slightly different than before. The tables may be cleaner, and you may be able to get served quicker than normal as there won’t be a huge crowd of inconsiderate yahoos at the bar, you’ll be able to get a seat and you might actually be able to hear each other when having a conversation – hang on, this sounds way better than before!
Granted, there may also be more clear plastic screens than you remember, and the atmosphere, although audibly rewarding, may be lacking somewhat compared to pre-lockdown pubs, but if the last three months have taught us anything, it’s that we need to adapt and make the most of the situation (and apparently make banana bread for some reason).
These changes, such as giving our contact details, are of minimal inconvenience for us, the thirsty punters, a final bagatelle before we can quench our three-month thirst for a good pint. But how will the new measures affect those in the industry, the bar staff and waiters and landlords and maitre d’s who have had to wait so patiently for this day? We spoke to a number of them to see how lockdown had impacted them, and how they were set for the big day.
It is a notoriously risky venture taking on a pub at the best of times, but trying to do so amidst a global pandemic and economic shutdown, “it is near enough impossible,” explains John Purchese, who took over and relaunched Brighton landmark, The Quadrant on Queen’s Road, just five weeks prior to lockdown.
This stark reality of the lockdown was felt across the board. Sarah Davies, co-owner of the Cleveland Arms, detailed their experience: “at the beginning of March we were preparing for a busy Mother’s Day and we’d had such an amazing start to the year. Then the Friday before Mother’s Day we were told to close our doors that evening.” If we hadn’t all lived it through it, weren’t all still living through it, we’d dismiss it as the plot of some futurist movie that sees a puritan despot crushing society’s free spirit. Perhaps Dolph Lundgren would be starring.
The Cleveland Arms are one of many pubs that have sought alternative revenue streams during lockdown, launching at the beginning of May the Cleveland Arms Cellar, an online off licence selling drinks from local suppliers. And whilst this has seen a great deal of support, nothing compares to bums on seats.
So, how will post-lockdown pubs and restaurants look compared to pre-lockdown? The first thing we’ll notice is upon arrival: not only will we be giving our details to staff, but many places will be carrying out compendious health checks, taking temperatures upon arrival, and ensuring the safety of customers and staff alike. Bill’s in Lewes, for example will use tracking software for all employees, logging daily temperature readings over a seven-day rolling period, to ensure safety first for everyone.
The second thing we may notice is that there are far fewer people there. Due to social distancing rules, even when cut to one metre, it is thought that most establishments will be running at 50-60% capacity.
Beyond that, however, it is a bit of a mystery as to how the pubs will look, feel and operate. As Will Farmer, landlord at the recently refurbished Dyke Alehouse & Kitchen explains, “I don’t think we’re going to learn everything until we do the first weekend. I’ve no doubt that we’ll probably change half the stuff we’re doing: it’s going to be learn as we go.” One point made by all the venues we spoke to was that they were committed to the new measures, implementing the highest standards of health and safety, to ensure customers aren’t on edge and are able to enjoy the experience of being back there. As Richard Roper, General Manager of The Ivy In The Lanes, put it, “we want to ensure there is still an atmosphere and buzz and we hope to bring back a touch of Ivy magic for our diners to enjoy.”
But, as happy to follow the guidelines as they all are, there is frustration about over the government’s handling of the reopening. “The government have just thrown some half-thought guidelines out there and hope that everyone makes up the rest as we go along,” explained Farmer, not alone in feeling like a guinea pig. There is concern across the board about the vagueness of the guidelines and the nature of the support from the government. And this extends to the date of the reopening, too. Originally thought to be late in July or early August, the announcement that pubs could reopen on the 4th July was met with concern by many. “This earlier opening stinks of an incompetent government who has handled the crisis officially worse than the rest of Europe (potentially the world), and who don’t want to lose ground with neighbouring countries,” said Purchese. This anxiety is shared by Farmer who explained that “business-wise, I think they should’ve kept us shut for a bit longer, and offer a bit more support. Any business that can’t operate at their full capacity is setting themselves up to fail.”
And these concerns aren’t limited to the venues, but are likely to be shared by many customers, too. “We appreciate there will be some people still cautious about returning to the pub just yet,” Davies explained. These apprehensions are perhaps exacerbated by the, frankly rather strange, decision by Dominic Cummings – I mean Boris Johnson – to reopen all these venues on a Saturday, a move perhaps taken from the Big Book of Russian Roulette Policy Making he got in his Christmas stocking. There just seems to be an unnecessary risk of mayhem, combining three and a half months without going to the pub with a Saturday night.
There are, naturally, concerns over the future of the industry. “If the ‘new normal’ of distancing and PPE stays with us for much longer,” Purchese suggests, “we are in real danger of changing the inherent culture of what we know as a ‘pub.’” And, when asked if he had any reservations about opening the pub back up, he responded with characteristically good-natured honesty, “fuck yes!”
However, search hard enough and there are always silver linings to be found. (Sometimes you have to search really hard.) As Bill Collison, the eponymous founder of Bill’s restaurant chain, explained to me, our current situation has prompted behavioural and attitudinal changes and “people have shifted their habits and have been incredibly supportive of their local communities and businesses during lockdown.” We must hope that this attitudinal change isn’t a flash in the pan, a well-intentioned but temporary reaction to lockdown, but that it remains in perpetuity, after the novelty of the first visit fades.
The general feeling is that here in Brighton, perhaps more than many places, it will. As well as a nationally renowned social scene, there is an overwhelmingly supportive community spirit throughout the city. “We live in a great community and we have been blown away by the support we have received,” explained Davies.
And of course, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of our local pubs and restaurants. For hundreds of years, the great British pub has played a vital role in society; a communal focal point, social centre, meeting place and sanctuary from the elements. And with owners and staff being switched on to the importance of increased hygiene measures, they will be able to continue with this important role, and be safe havens from the virus, beacons of cleanliness, that we can safely gather in. “As restrictions are being eased, hospitality businesses will become key places to safely gather and spend that highly missed quality time together,” suggests Collison. “Therefore, allowing pubs and restaurants to open their doors once again is key to working towards the ‘new normal.’”
Of course, it will take our cooperation, too. We must follow the examples being set by staff in the pubs, continue to follow social distancing guidelines as best we can, as well as observing the measures put in by the pub or restaurant. And I, for one, think that if I can help support a local business by enjoying a pint or two in my local, then I’m more than prepared to selflessly sink a few ice-cold beers to help out: it’s just the kind of generous guy I am.
“Stay alert” Mr Johnson has repeatedly (and conveniently vaguely) spouted at us from under his haystack of hair. Well, in a rare fluke of circumstance, and an exercise of say something enough times and eventually it will be relevant, his words might actually have some worth in this context. If we, as customers, can stay alert, and patient, and adaptable, can refrain from getting carried away and, booze gone to heads, start flouting the guidelines, then hopefully in weeks to come the 4th July won’t be the date of another disaster chalked up the erroneous fools in Westminster, but perhaps the first mark in their We-Got-One-Right column.
So, concerns there may be, but there is also great excitement ahead of this much-loved, and much-missed integral part of our lives opening back up this weekend, from both sides of the bar: as much as we have missed going out for a drink and for food, the talented and hard-working people of this essential industry have missed it at least as much. “We can’t wait to welcome back our regular guests and members of the community who we have greatly missed over the last few months,” explains Roper, in a sentiment surely shared by all those opening their doors this weekend.
I shall leave the final word to Sarah Davies who beautifully summarises the cautious optimism currently felt: “I think everybody accepts that everyone and every business has to adapt to a new way of life at the moment. As long as we do this and we do it sensibly, I think everyone can enjoy what the British pub has to offer.”
Cheers to that. (Yesss! I got the final word in after all.)