The dank smell of beer and ready salted crisps. The distant fuzz of a football crowd on a mounted television. Thick cut chips and sugary cola with whiskey. Cold pints and curling cigarette smoke and sun-draped wooden benches. I'm of course talking about pubs – Britain's most long-standing and beloved institution.
Since lockdown began on the 23rd of March, pubs have been out of action for the first time since, idk, the 1600s or something. Which makes sense: they're hardly pandemic-friendly. In retrospect it seems weird that we were all just sharing salted nuts and touching toilet door handles and passing round pool cues to begin with, but that was before a deadly virus swept the globe.
For a while it looked like pubs might remain closed until Christmas. Back in April, Michael Gove inferred that pubs would be among the last to open post-lockdown. Despite widespread fears of a second coronavirus wave, the government says that pubs are now scheduled to open from the 4th of July, "subject to advice at the time". But what is “going to the pub” even going to look like if that happens?
Gerry O'Boyle, owner of the Boogaloo pub in North London, tells me that service will resume as before “except with restricted numbers” and a “host” on the door identifying tables and seating customers on arrival. There won't be queuing up for pints or swapping cash either – all food and drink will be ordered via an app, which will then be brought to tables by staff who will be “washing their hands every 15 minutes”.
Other pubs reveal similar plans for protective measures, including social distancing, minimal physical contact and frequent hygiene checks. A spokesperson for Wetherspoons – who operate around 900 pubs in the UK and Ireland – tells me that the chain has already undergone an overhaul ahead of opening. All tables will adhere to social distancing guidelines, with “screens to create seating areas where it is not possible to separate the tables” and dispensers for anti-bacterial hand sanitiser distributed liberally across venues.
Wetherspoons customers will also be encouraged to order via an app, meaning that food and drink can be brought to the separated tables – although cash will still be accepted. “Staff will hand over all drinks holding the base of the glass, and when ordered by the app they will be delivered to the table on a tray,” they explain. Staff will also need to undergo daily health checks to confirm they are fit for work: “This will include having their temperature taken using a digital thermometer.”
While a lot of pub owners seem relatively optimistic about opening in July, others feel as though they can't open responsibly without having received clear government guidelines. For some of the older, smaller pubs – especially those without gardens – it's simply not possible to keep customers two metres apart, so it can be difficult to know how to proceed. Young's – who run around 220 pubs across London – won't be opening their pubs until the 3rd of August, when they hope distancing measures might be relaxed. “Once the official guidelines are published we will act accordingly,” Simon Dodd, Chief Operating Officer at Youngs, tells me in an email.
Lee Pyefinch, owner of the Full Nelson pub in Deptford, echoes his hesitancy. “For us, things are very unsure,” he says. “We are starting to open occasionally as a takeaway, with no seating inside. Going forward it’s difficult to say… we've just got to see how things play out.”
If the Full Nelson does open in July, they'll need to have protective measures in place. But it's difficult to know what those measures should be and how to implement them without having received any official safety guidelines. “We're trying to figure out what to do,” he shrugs. “We are a very small venue so it's going to be tricky. Possibly an idea is to remove a lot of the furniture and have a standing room only type place? But what we will actually be able to do is a bit of a guess at the moment.”
Essentially, if pubs do open in July – and that's a big "if", seeing as the government has frequently moved targets around in regards to when and how lockdown should be eased – “going to the pub” will largely depend on the pub itself and whether the government has outlined adequate guidelines ahead of opening. Either way, you probably won't be jostling up against randomers by the bar or sharing ketchup bottles anytime soon, and there will be a lot more downloading apps and washing hands. Or at least you'd hope so. Once everyone's had a drink, who knows how it'll turn out.