‘We cannot in good conscience open the pub’
Back in normal times, on match days, the pavement outside the Tollington Arms would be as crowded as a Tube station. The pub is right next to the Emirates stadium, Arsenal’s home ground, and is a popular sports pub.
But although the Gunners are on the pitch this Saturday, the doors will remain firmly shut.
The government has given pubs in England the go ahead to reopen from 4 July if they follow a strict set of social distancing rules, but last week the Tollington’s manager, Martin Whelan, posted a message on social media announcing it would stay closed.
“We cannot in good conscience open the pub when contracting a deadly virus is still possible under these guidelines,” he tweeted.
The decision was met with a flood of support on Twitter with customers praising it as a “wise” and “courageous” decision. Only a handful were scornful, urging them to be less cautious and open up.
None of the other eight bars Mr Whelan runs around London will be opening either.
“Some of my staff have had this virus and when you’ve seen them at death’s door you take a different point of view,” Mr Whelan says. “It’s a very sobering position to be in.”
Once the virus is circulating at lower levels in the population and there’s a “proper track and trace scheme” up and running then he would consider reopening, he says. In the meantime he couldn’t look his staff in the eye and ask them to come back with confidence.
“Nobody likes losing money but you have to have a conscience too.”
Britain’s pubs were among the hardest hit businesses when lockdown came. Many had to pour away beer that grew stale, throw away food that couldn’t be served, board up premises and furlough staff.
Now social distancing rules have been reduced from two metres to “one plus” and the government has set out conditions, including taking the names and contact details of customers, to mitigate some of the risks.
The big pub chains including JD Wetherspoon and Enterprise Inns are opening almost all of their sites with modifications including plastic screens, one way systems, reduced seating, and apps for ordering food and drink.
Nevertheless only around half of the UK’s pubs will be open this weekend, according to a survey by the industry body UK Hospitality.
Pubs in Scotland and Wales haven’t yet been allowed to reopen, accounting for a lot of those remaining shut, but still a large number of pubs in England won’t be welcoming back customers either.
For some it simply isn’t economically viable to do so. Chris and Liz Smith run The Chambers which used to host live music and serve food in a packed basement in Folkestone.
“We’re quite a unique venue. We offer a bit of everything, but music is the key for us functioning,” says Ms Smith.
Without music they don’t think the atmosphere would work, but there are also the insurmountable problems of a single narrow staircase down to the basement and a narrow corridor to the toilet.
“We don’t want to open if we can’t do it properly,” says Mr Smith, but he recognises there is a possibility they may never be able to reopen at all.
Other pubs can accommodate guests more easily, like the Prospect in Exeter, which, even with reduced seating can manage space for 78 outdoors in the fresh air.
But landlord Suzanne Abrey-Cameron is apprehensive about what the prime minister has dubbed “Super Saturday” after all these weeks of people being cooped up indoors.
“There’s a lot of expectation,” she says. “It’ll be worse than Black Friday.”
So the Prospect won’t open until 9 July when she hopes things will have calmed down.
“We’ve missed out on four months, one weekend is not going to make a difference.”
Moreover, the opening hours will be “weather permitting” since they are only serving customers al fresco.
One of the large chains, Greene King, is also only opening its pubs after the weekend, not because of concerns over unruly behaviour, but to ensure staff and facilities are ready.
“It wasn’t a case of avoiding the hysteria, more making sure the teams were ready,” says Karl Gibson, who manages Greene King’s Trip to Jerusalem pub in Nottingham.
He’s taken down the boards protecting the pub during lockdown, which they’d decorated with messages of support for the NHS, and is preparing for a gradual return, spread out over ten days from Monday.
But for some city centre pubs, especially in Nottingham, which is in striking distance of Leicester where pubs remain closed due to the local lockdown, there is a shadow of concern over this weekend’s openings. The police have warned that pub-goers shouldn’t treat it as an excuse for excess.
Tony Cockcroft of the British Security Industry Association says security firms have seen a wave of enquiries ahead of the weekend. “We’re looking at levels akin to a bank holiday weekend,” he says.
Extra security staff are likely to be needed if queues form outside pubs and possibly to administer and explain the new regulations to customers as they enter.
But Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, points out that this is all very familiar territory for a lot of city centre landlords, accustomed to managing anti-social behaviour at busy weekends. Moreover for the time being volumes are likely to remain much lower than usual.
“In recent weeks we’ve seen what happens when you don’t have facilities open, there is that pent-up demand,” she says. “You have illegal raves in Manchester, you have crowding at beauty hotspots.
“Reopening the pubs, bars and restaurants could be part of the solution not part of the problem. We can provide for people who want to get out of the house and make sure there’s social distancing policed on premises.”