Pubs across the UK are preparing to reopen from Saturday (4 July) with a mixture of nerves and excitement, uncertain of quite what will happen when they unlock the doors for the first time in months.
“I’m looking forward to it but I’m dreading it at the same time because you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Jack Duignan, publican at The Sutton Arms in central London, told Yahoo Finance UK this week.
For many, reopening offers a vital lifeline to keep staff and businesses afloat. But there are concerns pubs will be overwhelmed on “Super Saturday” and worries about how easy it will be to enforce health and safety regulations once drink has been taken.
Some also fear “Super Saturday” will be a flash in the pan and businesses could struggle to keep afloat over summer.
“There is excitement about the reopening without a shadow of a doubt,” Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pubs Association, told Yahoo Finance UK.
But, she added: “This is not just opening up the doors of the pub and serving pints the way they used to before. There’s great trepidation.”
Pubs have been shut since mid-March but the prime minister announced earlier this month they could reopen from Saturday 4 July — news that was greeted by shouts of “hallelujah” in the House of Commons.
The announcement gave publicans just 10 days notice to get ready and sent many scrambling. The British Beer and Pubs Association estimates pubs have spent £450m ($554m) getting their pubs “COVID-19 compliant” and restocking the bars.
When doors do reopen, pubs will look very different. Hand sanitiser pumps will be stationed at doors and on tables. Plexiglass screens have been installed. Staff wear PPE.
Drinking in the pub will also be a very different experience. Gone are the days of sitting at the bar — most will now be table service only, while some pubs will make customers order through an app. Standing inside will be banned.
Many pubs will now also require people to book before coming in, with strict limits on numbers to ensure social distancing can be respected. (Good luck finding a pub that will seat more than six people.)
Even intimate moments are being re-thought.
“We’re putting locks on the main door so it’s one in, one out,” Emma Shepherd, landlady at The Blue Ball in Sheffield, said of her pub’s toilets.
“There’s clear notices on there to say shout out to check that they’re free — if not cross your legs.”
Perhaps most controversially, customers will have to sign in when they turn up for the purposes of the government’s trace and track scheme.
“I think there’s some anxiety from people that pubs are going to be a bit sterile, like waiting rooms, they’re not going to feel like pubs anymore, they’re not going to feel warm and friendly,” Shepherd said. “We’re working really hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
McClarkin said: “Be prepared to be greeted at the door, to be told about the procedures, there’ll be limited bar service at the bar if any. It will be altered for some time but we are so grateful and ready to receive you back.”
Some of the biggest changes are being felt by Britain’s most historic pubs. The Scotch Piper Inn near Liverpool celebrates its 700th birthday this year and the building is a warren of rooms, some only 4-metres across. Adapting to a world of social distancing and one way systems is a challenge.
“You’re not going to be able to get very many people inside at all,” landlady Caroline Godden told Yahoo Finance UK.
McClarkin estimates that most pubs will only be able to operate at 70% capacity when they reopen. Restrictions on numbers will have an obvious knock-on effect for business, another major concern for publicans.
90% of pubs reopening are expected to either be loss-making or break even for the foreseeable future, McClarkin said. Around 20% of the Beer and Pubs Association’s 20,000 members simply can’t reopen under the current guidelines.
Those with the space are hoping to make up some business by expanding outdoor seating. Godden is putting on more tables in The Scotch Piper Inn’s garden and erecting a Marquee.
Still, there are nagging questions. What if older regulars don’t feel comfortable returning to the pub with COVID-19 still in circulation, a particular concern for village pubs? What if “Super Saturday” is just a flash in the pan and drinkers remain cautious? And what if the British weather makes outdoor and overspill areas uninhabitable due to rain?
“We know already it’s going to take time to win back consumer confidence,” McClarkin said. “The pub will be an altered experience, as many other parts of our life, but hopefully it will be a place where we can go and support our local community reconnect with our local community and feel that we’re getting back to some sort of normality.”
The pub sector is worth £23bn to the UK economy and supports 1 million jobs, McClarkin said. She’ll be doing her bit to support the sector on Saturday and has booked a table at her local, The Victoria & Albert in Netherhampton.
“I’ll be there with my jumpers and my umbrella,” McClarkin joked.
Godden and Shepherd are both part of the Long Live The Local campaign organised by Britain’s Beer Alliance, which is urging people to visit their locals throughout the summer and beyond to support their businesses.
“Please support your pubs,” Godden said. “We really need people to come back to the pubs.”
Shepherd said: “I’m not going to make any kind of predictions because I have no clue what it’s going to be like. I’m just going to crack on and be positive and hope for the best.”
At the Sutton Arms in London, Duignan isn’t worried about struggling to attract business — in fact, he has the opposite fear.
The Sutton Arms will only be able to welcome around 20 guests inside with limited outside space when he reopens. Duignan worries the pub will be overwhelmed.
“There’s a part of me that just thinks from the day we open it’s going to be non-stop chaos with people trying to get in,” he said.
Many landlords are particularly concerned given the timing of the reopening.
“We’re kind of a bit disappointed that it’s going to be on the Saturday and not the Monday,” Godden said. “Even the Friday would have been better, then you could have spread it out over the Friday and Saturday for the people that work. I just thought that was a bit misjudged for the government to do that.”
Police believe this weekend could end up being as busy as New Year’s Eve, according to Sky News, and the head of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine this week made a plea for the public to drink responsibly.
“We’re going to have to put a lot of trust into our customers with this and if that can’t be done then it’ll end up just getting stricter and stricter,” Duignan said.
Duignan is waiting at least another week before he re-opens. The Sutton Arms will also introduce a pre-booking policy with limited time slots to try and ensure numbers are controlled.
“There’s a part of me where I think I might even be better off just staying as a takeaway for another two months,” he said. The Sutton Arms has turned into a bottle shop during lockdown which has become a hit in the area.
But Duignan knows he’ll have to reopen eventually. He may as well figure out how to make the ‘new normal’ work sooner rather than later.
“I want to give it a go, to see what I can do, to see if we can make the most of it.”