Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Inching back to normality

It is now just over two weeks since pubs in England were allowed to reopen following the lockdown on July 4th, albeit under restrictions as to how they could operate. On reopening day, there were a handful of reports of minor outbreaks of disorder, but they were probably nothing more than would have happened on a normal Saturday, and were only newsworthy because of the long closure.

The general impression is that trade has been substantially down, with the Morning Advertiser reporting a figure of 40%. That is certainly borne out by my own experience of visiting a number of pubs. Obviously this is not necessarily representative of the overall pattern, but I’d say they varied between doing reasonable business and being extremely quiet.

With one exception, which is a very small place, none were up to their permitted seating capacity. This suggests that those pubs that decided they needed to require bookings for drinkers had been distinctly over-optimistic, apart from perhaps on the first weekend. Each pub has come up with its own interpretation of the guidelines, so you have to pick up the rules on each new visit. You are likely to be greeted with calls to sign a register or form, and to sanitise your hands using the cunningly concealed dispenser that you have just walked straight past.

I have only encountered one put that allocated me to a specific seat, and that was on reopening day – I suspect it may have been dropped since. I have also had no problem in paying with cash in any pub I have visited. I have been surprised that only half the pubs have made any attempt to ask me for contact details, given that so much concern was raised about this aspect beforehand. Maybe this is a good thing, given that evidence is already starting to emerge of contact information being abused.

Two of those that did were Wetherspoon’s, where the contract tracing forms are prominently displayed by the entrance, but customers are not put under any pressure to comp0lete them. In general, Wetherspoon’s seem to have done a good job of complying thoroughly with the guidelines without making their pubs unwelcoming. To my eye, their interiors have been improved and made more intimate by breaking up the wide open spaces through spreading the tables out and putting partitions up between them. Like other pubs, though, they seem to have struggled with organising a queuing system at long bar counters that weren’t designed for it.

One pub I visited had a portable screen that they placed at the bar to enable a customer to stand next to it, which seemed like a slightly tongue-in-cheek way of paying lip service to the rules. In general, the most convivial atmosphere has been in pubs that preserve separate rooms with bench seating around the walls, enabling customers to sit around the edge and carry on a conversation while still maintaining social distancing.

While there is no way of telling people’s relationship with each other, I got the impression that people from different households were meeting up in pubs and sitting together, showing that on the ground they are beginning to ignore the increasingly incomprehensible rules on exactly who can meet whom where and how far they’re supposed to stay apart.

Some pubs continued to provide beermats, either already out on the tables or handed to you individually with your drink, although the majority didn’t. This suggests that doing away with mats falls into the category of “something we can do to show we’re making an effort” rather than having any real justification.

In most cases, access to toilets was unhindered apart from signs reminding people to wash their hands and keep apart from one another. One pub, however, had instituted a single occupancy rule for each of the gents’ and ladies’, and in the gents’ had taped off the urinals, so only the single WC was available for use. You can’t help thinking that this is likely to cause problems if someone needs to use the trap for the purpose for which it was intended!

At least initially, beer quality was good, as you would expect when pubs were all tapping fresh casks, and most seemed to have made efforts to trim their beer ranges to match the expected lower level of demand. However, this is inevitably likely to fall off as the reduced customer numbers take their toll.

The atmosphere in the various pubs I have visited has varied considerably. Personally, I’m quite happy for pubs not to be too busy, and some of them are places I’m happy to spend time in. In others though, it feels as though there’s just a handful of drinkers rattling around in an oversized building, and in one or two certain aspects of their adjustments made me feel less than entirely at ease. Only one, though, was playing piped music at a volume loud enough to require raised voices, which goes against the guidelines.

The fears that restricted capacity due to social distancing requirements would be a major problem have proved largely unfounded, and the real issue is simply the lack of customers itself. I doubt whether many of the reopened pubs can genuinely say yet that they are trading profitably.

The prospects of pubs are very much tied up with wider economy, and until confidence is restored they will continue to struggle. This is especially true in city centres, where the continued high proportion of commuters working from home has led to a sharp fall in demand, not just for pubs, but for a whole range of other ancillary businesses. The government are facing the problem that it is one thing to create a climate of fear that causes people to curb their activities, but something else entirely to unwind it.


  1. I found similar mixed experiences. As a general rule, the pubs with less strict interpretation of the rules were busier with a more convivial atmosphere. Only a couple had very strict rules, which felt unwelcoming. One of the bar staff reported that trade was declining as a result of 'doing it by the book' as drinkers migrated to others. As such, I reckon only 50% can trade profitably right now.

  2. The bad weather that makes sitting outside uncomfortable has probably put a number of us bed-wetters off and reduced the trade somewhat :-)

    The government's problem could be restated thus. Having encouraged people to work from home they are finding that many people so much enjoy not having to spend two hours a day commuting that it is almost impossible to persuade them to resume doing so. Nothing to do with the climate of fear.

    1. There's a lot of truth in that. I went from having one day a week working from home to one day a week in the office before retiring and found it more productive without the commuting Almost everything was done on computer/internet or by phone anyway by then. I sometimes missed the social contact but over my career the idea of having a beer together after work just seemed to slowly fall away - which does suggest a longer term issue for city centre pubs, at least in London.

    2. Yes, a lot of commentators are saying that this really does represent a sea-change in how people work, which has all kinds of implications for the future of city centres and all the activities that support them.

    3. Many workers are still furloughed, and are enjoying sitting at home, doing nothing, at the tax-payers expense.

      They might be in for a rude awakening come October!

    4. well there is a reason why all those pubs around the city square mile in London,including the Wetherspoons,either shut totally at the weekends, or had very reduced hours, if that persists in anyway and the lunchtime/post work pint was very much still a thing in London last year, alot of those pubs are going to close.

      in general though its interesting even locally already after the initial burst of reopening has subsided, Im noticing pubs are cutting back already on their opening times, whilst some havent even reopened at all yet.

  3. twilight of the pubs.
    thankfully the kids will have plenty of documents to read as to what they were.

    1. I think Spoons are safe, though. They've just opened a massive new one in suburban Leeds.

  4. Over the past weeks I've been to various pubs at various times and it is hard to gauge if there is a significant drop due to the times I attended and the distancing measure put in place.

    I have noted more people in beer gardens on week days, though quite whether this balances out on footfall I don't know.

    I can still report that no local pubs enforce taking names, including Spoons (though some punters willingly do add theirs, using the pub supplied non sanitised pen) and in most pubs the drinking experience still feels quite normal.

  5. Professor Pie-Tin22 July 2020 at 14:26

    Spoons are expanding in Ireland too, opening up a big new hotel in Dublin and adding to their pub chain around the country.
    Sadly because it is the ONLY place where you can drink cheaply in Ireland they do attract some rough sorts and rarely the old boys nursing a pint all day - my local one has bouncers on the door to keep out the real feral scumbags.
    In other news Britain is not on the list published today of 15 mainly East European and Scandinavian countries where two weeks of self-isolation are required for visitors and returning tourists.
    However if you come in through Belfast and travel into the Republic no-one has a clue where you've come from.
    The BOGOF Brothers running the country ( the two main coalition partners will take turns as Prime Minister every two years ) have come up with a plan of financial incentives to encourage people to staycation - but it won't be in place until after the schools go back in September.
    Meanwhile, after this week's post-Brexit EU summit Ireland, with 1% of the total EU population, will now become the fifth biggest contributor to the EU budget.
    After years of encouraging US multinationals to avoid tax by running their income through Ireland which inflated the country's GDP figures Irish citizens have now been caught on the hook for €15.7billion.
    Still, at least Britain has saved 80-odd billion by leaving.
    Onwards and upwards !

  6. Life is more complicated in Wales due to an out of touch and incompetent government's determination to destroy its economy,social distancing remains at 2 metres and pubs cannot open indoors,as a result few are open and sadly many will not survive.
    I believe that changes in working patterns prior to the epidemic including discouraging lunch time drinking and longer commutes meant that the dependence of city centre pubs on office workers had diminished significantly and that these pubs depended on visitors to the city for their custom during the day and the night. Perhaps what is needed is a revival in tourism and a stimulation of the night time economy

    1. I think the trade of city-centre pubs in places like Manchester still depends to a substantial amount on workers who choose to hang around after work rather than going straight home.

    2. Tourism is only five percent of Wales' economy, I read.

  7. I've visited a few pubs in the past week with varying interpretations of the rules. The one that concerned me had a requirement to sign a register that was openly displayed on a table near their entrance.

    The way it was layed out encouraged customers to not only leave their name and phone number but address as well, and people appeared only too willing to oblige. Surely an open invitation to criminals.

    Overall the pubs I've visited have been fairly consistent with the level of trade I would expect given past experiences. Usually busy pubs have remained popular. Retail in general isn't a difficult proposition, give people a product they want at a fair price, and be available when they want it. Good businesses will thrive, poor ones will not.

    1. At the moment the best we can hope for is the good businesses surviving. Thriving will come later. Thing is, not even the best businesses can keep this nonsense up for more than a couple of months at around 40% of usual turnover, despite the rates holiday and other assistance they might have had.

  8. Unfortunately I think you're right re beermats!!


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