I resigned from my role as a bartender in a pub in west London, almost a month after Britain returned to pubs and restaurants in a weekend dubbed “Super Saturday” by the British government. It wasn’t my finest moment in hospitality. I burst into tears in front of a startled elderly couple who were shakily dividing up their coppers to tip me. They were risking their health by leaving the house, all to feel some normality. Yet here they were in a short-staffed pub, waiting over an hour for their food, telling me how lucky they were, as I anxiously fumbled around with the card reader I hadn’t been trained to use.
At first, I was thankful to be working. Job vacancies are at their lowest level since 2001. It’s said that 36 percent of the UK’s bars, pubs and restaurants anticipate shutting shop, thanks to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the hospitality industry. The Azzurri Group is closing around 75 restaurants from their chains, including ASK and Zizzi’s, potentially leaving thousands out of work. I was lucky to have a job. But as the weeks went on, the risks began to outweigh the reward. Working in hospitality during the COVID era quickly became overwhelmingly stressful, and I’d had enough.
“I don’t get why everyone’s wearing masks. It’s not like it’s airborne, is it?” said a punter on the day I stepped into work after the nationwide lockdown, as customers gathered together in their masses for Super Saturday. My heart sank.
That weekend was a disturbing wake-up call to just how difficult work would be under the coronavirus measures. Yes, there was plenty of superficial temperature taking, antibacterial hand sanitiser (which customers weren’t told to use) and face masks (which were worn by zero customers and exactly one member of staff). Track and trace measures were in place, but older customers rarely followed them because they couldn’t work their phone to scan the necessary QR code. How much does any of this really protect the mental health of workers?
Over 250 tables were pre-booked. I hadn’t received proper training as the company couldn’t afford the hours – they were only allowed to budget for a certain number of hours per employee as they’d been closed for so long. A chain separated my colleague and I behind the bar, to “prevent crossovers”.
This meant we were limited to pouring drinks only in our section, which very quickly became chaotic when the drink on the printed ticket wasn’t in that section. I had access to spirits, wines and cocktails but no draught beers, which meant my colleague and I were constantly waiting on each other to finish a ticket. If something wasn’t in your section, you couldn’t just go and get it yourself as you would be intruding on their “bubble”.
In the tumultuous hours that followed, waitresses were breaking up brawls – and not in a socially distanced way. For the first time in most men’s lives, they were having to queue for the bathroom, huffing over the inconvenience. It became clear that not even a pandemic can relax the demands of the general public.
The next day we assembled for a morning brief and feedback from the boss on how Super Saturday had gone: “We can push harder… Communicate better… You need to get better at making mojitos.” I found it discouraging we got little praise for working under completely new restrictions. The majority of feedback seemed to be heavily reliant on sales targets, as they were panicking about the longevity of the business if they didn’t start making back the money they’d lost over lockdown.
The anxiety over germs became a really big thing for me. Having picked up hundreds of napkins with my hands, touching dirty straws and cleaning toilets, I felt very aware of what I was coming into contact with. I’d return home having scrubbed my hands with sanitiser all day, jump straight in the shower and obsess over feeling that I could have been exposed to the virus.
“There’s a complete lack of consideration for the workers,” says Sarah* 25, who works in an Italian restaurant in central London. “I had a huge wave of anxiety going back… It’s the idea of expanding your circle to a complete set of strangers and you have no idea where they’ve been.” She told me that she “went from a team of 15 people to four… I was the only one who got re-hired on a zero-hour contract and everyone else lost their job”.
Sarah explained how the biggest problems she faced was that “the customers are the ones most reluctant to obey social distancing… They’re always moving tables and chairs”. It’s clear that customers are unaware of the level of cleanliness we have to adhere to. Something as simple as moving tables can no longer be a thing, as we need to clean the entire area between sittings. When it rains, Sarah says, customers start flooding the restaurant, disregarding distancing and demanding tables, unaware of how the booking system works.
During a shift, I had to stop a group of lads from repeatedly using the signed “employees only” toilet. It was there to minimise infection risk, yet we were still having to wipe customers’ piss off our own toilets. They say “the customer is always right”, but it’s safe to say they’re not during a pandemic. These same lads also bullied my colleague for wearing a visor while serving. Other customers approached our staff in fits of drunken rage, either unhappy with service or the situation.
It’s not just me or Sarah struggling to process the changes to the system. Luke, 24, works at a luxury restaurant and bar. He was moved to the retail section of the company during lockdown, as it was deemed as an “essential business”.
“It’s hard to argue we are an essential shop,” he says, “seeing as the fresh produce consists purely of caviar, foie gras and stilton.”
I asked whether he thought it was feasible to maintain social distancing while returning back to work. “We have 10-15 people working per shift. The staffroom sign says only one person at a time, but it’s also our changing/locker room, and manager’s office,” he says. “It’s impossible to be operational and maintain a social distance.”
Having worked in a pub post-pandemic, it worries me that most punters seem to have assumed it’s “business as usual”. Do customers think returning to bars to slam down pints is safer than it actually is?
Zoe works at a popular restaurant in London notorious for its queuing system. “People are still outraged that they’re waiting for a table. We’re working on 30 percent capacity so it’s still very busy. The queue fills up and people are still mad about it.” When the company has tried to accommodate customers in outdoor seating, they’re making unviable requests like blankets for warmth. “We can’t give people blankets unless we were throwing them away or washing them above 85 degrees, which we don’t have the capacity to do.”
I chose to leave my job because the stress became too much. One minute management was strict on distancing, asking you to move out of the way when they got closer. The next they were hastily using their fingers to fling fruit into customers' drinks. As soon as the pub got busy, distancing was a thing of the past, which made me question how much of it was for show.
Many other hospitality workers have also been made redundant because there’s no role for them under the new measures. In Luke’s case, he was offered a role he wouldn’t have been able to fulfil.
“You’re talking to a group of working-class people, who have careers in hospitality because they don’t have uni degrees,” he says. “The jobs they were offering us were IT consultants and HR managers.” Both Luke and I have been working almost solely in hospitality since we were 15. Seeing as hospitality makes up 10 percent of the UK’s employment, it’s easy to see why it would be implausible to assume we could suddenly move to HR after working in a bar for 10-plus years.
I ask if Luke will return back to the industry. “Until this point, this had been the best hospitality job I’d ever had. People are generally good and then there’s the odd arsehole. However, there’s a climate of arseholes at the moment. It’s done for me. It’s broken beyond repair. This has been the nail in the coffin, it’s just not worth it.” The others I spoke to echo this.
It’s clear that the hospitality industry is pretty fucking bleak. We are part of the economic machine that keeps this country afloat, but we’re constantly reminded of how “expendable” we are by the higher powers. We are breaking our backs so that others can have a big night out. Before you reap the rewards of your local pub, bar or restaurant has to offer post-lockdown, I think I can safely say for all of us, if you’re going to go out… Don’t be a dick.
*Names have been changed to protect their jobs