The pubs are open - but what's different? Olivia Adams books a table to find out
My friends and I are discussing dating. It’s a favourite topic of ours, and we are sipping wine in a pub garden in London. So far, so normal – but the landscape around us is far from it.
One-way systems, hand sanitiser stations, table service only and socially distant restrictions highlight the dramatic change of the famed pub experience. And yes, it is a little sad. But there are positives to note.
First of all, the atmosphere. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that pubs and restaurants, along with other businesses, could reopen on July 4, the world suddenly felt a little less claustrophobic.
Experiencing the now much overused phrase ‘the new normal’ first hand is liberating. Everyone – staff and customers alike – is laughing and smiling, and while I admit I was worried as to whether the rules would make it impossible to relax and have fun, I am gladly proved wrong.
Hand sanitiser stations
So, hand sanitising by the entrance is a non-negotiable. Next, we are greeted by a woman who ticks off the booking requests. No walk ins are admitted, as all pubs are operating the track and trace system. This means registering every visitors’ contact details in case they need to be told to self-isolate, in the event of another outbreak.
We are seated outside (as per our pre-booked preference) and to order drinks, one of us has to scan a provided barcode with a smartphone. ‘If it seems too techy, give us a wave and we’ll help,’ the sign says kindly. It’s actually straightforward enough, and the successfully scanned barcode takes us to the pub website, where we can order from a reduced drinks menu and pay using a debit card.
Our drinks are handed to us by a woman wearing blue plastic gloves. ‘Cheers!’ we shriek, and Super Saturday begins. Later, and after only one system crash, which was a result of too many people ordering online at once, it’s time to investigate the rules for bathroom use.
Basically, it’s time for the hygiene and safety measures to convince us we’re safe. ‘Please queue here’ a sign instructs on the loo door. ‘One person at a time during this point.’ Not ideal, I think as I shuffle onto the bright yellow ‘queue here’ sticker outside the bathroom, but certainly better than the stressful park situation with no public toilets.
Socially distanced era
Inside, in the socially distanced era, tables are removed, and the ones left have customers all coolly keeping two metres from one another. Hardly usual scenes for a Saturday in London. But respectful. And I don’t hate the compulsory table service, either – gone are the days of pushing your way to the front of a tightly packed bar. That said, people not being able to go over and talk to one another is strange.
I last visited the pub with the exact same group of people on March 13. At this time, Italy was under lockdown, while the UK was seemingly ignoring all signs that the pandemic was heading our way.
Now, the pub industry is among the worst hit by coronavirus, with our 47,000 locals shuttered since March 20. According to trade body the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), four out of ten establishments won’t survive past September without additional government support. A very bleak thought.
Mr Johnson said pub and restaurant re-openings are the beginning of the end of ‘our long national hibernation’. And it’s true. Of course, I miss the old pub days, but we’ve woken up to a new world now. It’s time to embrace our evolving society and support it as best we can. Because we don’t want last orders for good.