A Quick One at The Lockdown Arms: The Shape of Post-Pandemic Boozing

A Top Beer Special: would you return to your local once the pubs reopen?

Before the pandemic led to our lockdown, having a pint of your favourite ale was a binary choice. You either went to the pub, or had it at home. You could have had a quick one between buses, train or trams. Or at least until Tariff 1 switches to Tariff 2 with your favourite taxi company.

The quick one could have been serendipitous, subject to your favoured brewery, ambience or what you would call a fair price for a pint. Your choice of pub could be down to its position beside the bus stop for example. It is something we have missed since the 21 March 2020, and something that we might lose in the foreseeable future well after the lockdown.

A post-pandemic quick one?

It is anticipated that England’s pubs and restaurants will reopen on the 04 July at the earliest. To allow this, HM Government are looking at relaxing the social distancing rules: down from two metres apart to the World Health Organisation’s bare minimum of one metre apart. What has prompted these concerns were hoteliers and publicans who thought the two metre rule would ruin their businesses.

Whereas medium-sized and large hotels can easily accommodate the two metre rule, smaller hotels would be hit even more. The lack of space for reception facilities is one, especially if it is also serves as the lobby of a small hotel. For public houses, any form of social distancing rule – one or two metres – can be problematic. Not only in being able to accommodate customers, but also in how to apply social distancing in various pub layouts.

As regular pub goers would note, no two pubs are ever the same inside. Yes, one or two may have the same menus, similar beers and prices, but you do see differences between (for example) one ‘Spoons from another. Even if Pubcos use the same carpet or Farrow and Ball paint throughout their estate.

If followed to the letter, proposals by the trade group UKHospitality would see the (hopefully temporary) end of many pub going traditions. That of propping the bar and getting into conversation with the bar staff. Also being able to order a quick half, spontaneously. Their suggested guidelines are as follows:

  • No drinking at the bar;
  • Fewer children in outdoor play areas;
  • Patrolled smoking areas in beer gardens;
  • Sauce sachets instead of bottles (on request);
  • Cutlery being brought in with food orders;
  • Queueing in pubs (with social distancing from bar staff).

Being unable to drink at the bar would have repercussions for smaller pubs and micro pubs. It eliminates any chit chat between bar staff and other customers that have popped in a quick one. Using two micro pubs in Tameside for example, Pub A would have to use its upstairs room and only allow two or three people to sit at the front table. Bar propping would be prohibited as the corridor between the bar and bottle shelf is barely a metre wide.

In Pub A, entry to the upstairs bar could be achieved by using its rear entrance, though this stops people with mobility issues from having a pint. Pub B would in a real pickle as most of its tables are a metre away from the bar. Social distancing would see a four seat table being occupied by a single person, sat nearest to the wall. If two metres apart, only half of its tables would be in use. With one metre apart for social distancing, this improves matters, though propping the bar would be prohibited.

For Pub C, a popular local on a main road, there is little scope for patrolling the smoking area, which is a few benches overlooking a car showroom. This may need to be fenced off. Pub D, a few yards up the road, has space for a dedicated beer garden which can be patrolled. It is a recent extension to the pub, though the table layout would have to be reconfigured to permit social distancing measures.

Some commentators think the patrolled smoking areas could usher in a Golden Age of Continental Style Pavement Café Culture. The kind that a certain northern town could have had though didn’t despite the reopening of its canal. In many cases, the English weather has conspired against this, which is why many smoking areas have covered seating (which is more Margate than Marseilles).

Whereas smaller pubs may have problems with social distancing, Tim Martin’s pub company is well placed for these changes. This is due to the size and nature of the J.D. Wetherspoon estate, which allows for flexibility in seating arrangements. Whether two metres apart or one metre apart, it is possible to reconfigure the tables and chairs. Staff will have to make a self assessment on their health and have a temperature check prior to starting their shift.

Furthermore, employees would have to wear personal protective equipment and carry glasses by the base. Condiments will be available on request in sachet form with cutlery handed out on receipt of your food order. Most of the J.D. Wetherspoon pubs already hand you the cutlery with your food order.

Our views on the queues

With the lockdown being relaxed, all licensed premises across the UK will have to adopt a queueing system. Whether pre-pandemic or post-pandemic, I think queueing in pubs is The Making of Mephistopheles. Especially in the town whose band plays the Shipley Douglas march on Whit Friday.

In pub terms, queueing up for a pint is akin to breaking the fourth wall between actor and viewer in a television sitcom (Mrs Brown’s Boys is a prime example here). Should our pubs and restaurants reopen, there would still be queueing in The Society Rooms which is no different to pre-pandemic practices. Only that the queueing would be socially distant.

Using The Society Rooms as our example, the elimination of tables nearest to the bar would widen the gangway. Instead of queueing at the bar, the use of J.D. Wetherspoon’s app would be encouraged (and it wouldn’t surprise us if Star Pubs, Greene King, Craft Union et al launch similar apps). At worst, there could be two queues: one to get in the pub, and another one to order your pint.

Licence to sell alcohol on and off the premises (and dispense hand sanitiser)

Soon, alcohol wouldn’t be limited to the bar. Alcohol based hand sanitiser could be the norm in all licensed premises. Hand sanitising stations will be seen at pub entrances and beside tables. As we have seen on public transport, there will be a more rigorous cleaning regime.

Other safety measures may include the imposition of one way systems, which could be easier said than done if you’ve had a few. Card payments would be encouraged over cash, even more so now as the contactless payment ceiling has gone from £30 to £45.

As Fred Pontin said, “Book early”

The future of post-pandemic boozing wouldn’t be a spontaneous one in the short term. It is expected that anybody fancying a quick one would have to book in advance.

If you have a smartphone, there’s every chance your local’s Pubco might have a booking system on their app. Instead, they might use a free app like Eventbrite that works on iOS and Android. Should any public house, restaurant, micro pub or Pubco use Eventbrite, the app’s installed base might have a wider audience than a third party app.

Unless telephone bookings are permitted, customers without smartphones could be frozen out of their local. To mitigate these issues, SMS text services should be considered – accessible to anyone with a smartphone or a not-so-smartphone.

The idea of booking a table isn’t alien to anyone who goes to restaurants. For the average turn-up-and-go regular on Steak Club night or Sunday afternoon karaoke, it’s a bit of a faff. Too much like hard work compared with “stuff this, do you want owt from Bargain Booze?” (other off-licence chains are available).

In a Sky News interview with Sophy Ridge, Health Minister and Newmarket MP Matt Hancock was asked if customers needed to register with their local. He said, “That is the sort of thing that we are looking at for how do you make it safe to open things… I wouldn’t rule it out.”

It is also worth noting that a similar approach was taken in New Zealand. The aim is to allow easier tracing of customers, should they fall ill and be tested positive for COVID-19. Though the idea sounds good in one respect, it fails to address a few factors. Firstly, do you bar access to the pub for customers that cannot afford nor feel the need to purchase a smartphone? Secondly, if you allow people to book with text messages, will mobile phone numbers be recorded?

Thirdly and finally, will be there be any reassurance that Pubcos and publicans will conform to GDPR legislation and not pass on their details to third parties without the user’s consent? Despite all this talk about booking apps, why has nobody questioned data protection issues?

Before I go… will I be heading to the pub on the 04 July?

I would love to go to the pub on the 04 July, but I think the measures would ruin the experience for me. Many people might head to the pub despite the queues, out of curiosity. Then, after finding they cannot do a pub crawl without signing in to a smartphone, their interest will wane. Some will revert to type and turn to the wines and spirits counter at their supermarket. Their queueing time would be twice as long, though they might see this as a sufficient trade-off for lower prices.

The pubs that would suffer would be the smaller ones. Their character would be stifled by social distancing methods. Any lively conversation in the tap room would be nullified as standing at the bar would be prohibited. As we have seen during behind closed doors Premier League matches, there would be no atmosphere.

Whether two metres apart or one metre apart, social distancing is a necessary evil. I can cope with the social distancing, but it is the lack of atmosphere and ability to have a quick half between buses. If I need to book in advance, I would like to be given some guarantee that my data wouldn’t be passed on to third parties without consent. Nor used against me if the NHS becomes a US style insurance based system, or in a court of law. Or in the peddling of lagers that I would give short shrift to in the supermarket aisles.

I only hope the tenants and managers are properly compensated. Despite all the hyperbole, getting used to the changes will be a big ask. For publicans, staff and customers, this is uncharted territory.

S.V., 22 June 2020.

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