This article originally appeared on VICE UK. Pubs in England reopened this weekend on what was dubbed "Super Saturday". Below is an account of what Saturday evening was like for those on the other side of the bar, from a member of staff at a London Wetherspoons.
I didn't sleep at all the night before my shift because I was dreading it so much. But when I arrived at the pub at 5PM, things were running surprisingly smoothly. I thought, 'Okay, this is good. The place is clean. People are keeping their distance. We can make this work.' We had a lot of good measures in place, including reducing our capacity to 150 seats; before COVID, we could fit 650. If you didn’t have a table, you weren’t coming in, so there was a big queue out the door, which was pretty good-humoured for the most part. I was working in the kitchen, as well as being out on the floor.
It started out alright, but as the evening went on it became a whole different story. One of the main problems was there was no limit on how long people could stay. When we asked, 'Is there going to be a drink limit?' we were just told to use our judgment as normal. It wasn't even necessarily worse than an average Saturday night – the reduced capacity helped – but it still ended up being pretty chaotic. Whenever I had to leave the kitchen, I was literally having to push past people, even though we had stickers on the ground telling people to social distance. We really hoped that people would respect this, but they didn't.
We also encouraged people to order using the Wetherspoons app, which allows you to get table service, but people mostly ignored this and just went up to the bar as normal. When customers came in we gave them test-and-trace forms to fill out, but there's nothing to stop anyone from writing, 'What’s your name? Micky Mouse. When are you leaving? When I want.' When I looked at the forms, I saw that people had mostly written stuff like that.
People absolutely did not observe the "no shouting" rule. How would you even enforce that? Are we meant to muffle them? It's a pub – everyone's shouting to their mates. Generally, it felt like customers were trying to follow the rules for the first few hours, but as they stayed, and got more drunk, everything got worse and worse.
At a few moments, things got really messy. There was a bad incident where a guy who was pretty intoxicated fell over and injured himself. This caused a huge commotion, and half the pub got up from their tables and crowded around our manager. They were trying to help, to be fair, but this was the last thing we wanted. People were huddling together dangerously close and I was trying to get them back to their seats so we could call an ambulance and let the bouncers sort it out.
That was quite scary, actually, because I felt like an ant compared to all of them, with my flimsy paper mask on. Crowd-control gets so difficult when there are that many people. When people are drunk, they don't realise how loud they are, they don’t follow instructions, sometimes they don’t realise how much they’re spraying you with spit when they’re talking. It was intimidating and stressful – we just shouldn’t be in that position at all.
Throughout the evening, I was very conscious of my own health, and concerned about my colleagues. In the kitchen, we’ve been provided with face masks and hand sanitiser everywhere, which is good. But whenever I went out on the floor, no one was wearing a mask. You just have to take it on trust that customers are washing their hands. You haven’t got a clue who’s got COVID and who hasn’t. I was terrified. I still am. I had to get really close to people when I didn't want to. It’s stressful, because I’ve worked my way up to being a shift leader in the kitchen and I want to look after myself and everyone else at work, but I know we're in harm's way, despite basically every single measure you could think of being put in place. You always have the anxiety of catching COVID.
But I absolutely, 100 percent don't blame the customers for all this. This would not be happening if the government hadn’t opened pubs so early and been so brash, putting out adverts saying, "Go get a drink! Raise a glass!" Going to the pub has been framed as a patriotic duty. People are going to see this messaging from the government and follow it. Even though I obviously do wish the customers had been a bit more careful, there’s only so much I can blame them.
If you feel guilty about coming to the pub, you should be aware that none of us in the Wetherspoons union want a boycott. Our hours are already at the bare minimum because the company's made no money. If trade is significantly reduced, I'm going to have my hours cut, along with everyone else. I’ll lose income and I won’t be able to pay my rent. Boycotting is not helping the workers right now, it’s just suiting your own narrative. If you genuinely want to support us and help out reasonably then come in, wash your hands, don't be a dick, wear a mask, and be respectful.
We just want to do our jobs without getting infected, without feeling stressed. I shouldn't have to be consoling one of my co-workers who’s broken down sobbing on the stairs mid-shift. This shouldn’t be happening. But now isn't the time to stay away. Even though last night was chaotic and stressful, we still took in way less than normal. It was nowhere near as profitable as a regular Saturday night, which is not sustainable. Ultimately, businesses are going to have to make decisions and people will lose their jobs. The crisis is only beginning.
The fact that pubs have opened this early and we're being placed as cannon fodder is horrific. I didn't speak to a single colleague who was happy to be there. We’ve gone from being furloughed to going straight into a normal shift, and the risk isn't gone. It’s very much still there.
See more photos from the weekend below.