The new pub normal

For many people it was a huge relief when British pubs were finally allowed to reopen after the lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, as it was a sign of normality slowly returning. At last, friends and locals can get back together and while huddling around a bar is not permitted, they can at least have a drink, catch up and have a laugh.

The past few months have been a tense time for pub tenants, owners and brewers; wondering if they will still have a business at the end of it all. Lockdown meant many pubs were haemorrhaging money as many had to pay rent as well as the bills that are incurred by any business. Meanwhile armies of bar staff, kitchen staff, cleaners, brewers and dray people, although mostly furloughed, were chomping at the bit to get back to work.

Some had no choice but to close completely but some entered the off-sales trade doing home deliveries, collections, or both. It was great, it helped everyone. We didn’t have to miss a pint of real ale or real cider and businesses could stay afloat. However, the dear old customer has all along been looking forward to a freshly poured pint of real ale, (or whatever their drink is) and a good chin wag.

Social distancing in hospitality has led to a shift in customer service. Did we ever imagine the day when the drinks come to the customer? Well that is what has happened. Gone is the traditional setup where the bar staff stand at the bar and the customers come to them, hand over their money and walk away with their drink or stay at the bar. You will see hazard tape stuck to the floor to keep customers apart and there will be strategically placed hand sanitisers.

Over ninety percent of pubs are now fully open and as we emerge from lockdown, like grumpy bears blinking in the sunlight after a long hibernation, we must respect the new rules and learn new customs. One thing that will be obvious to anyone visiting more than one pub is that there is no such thing as standard practice. Each pub owner, tenant and manager studiously read the Government’s 43-page guidance document ‘Keeping workers and customers safe during COVID-19 in restaurants, pubs, bars and takeaway services’ and had to interpret it to suit their floorspace and business.

In most of the pubs in this area, such as The Poole Arms, The Rope and Anchor, The Antelope, Brewhouse and Kitchen, All Hail Ale and The Barking Cat, you will be greeted and seated then bar staff come and take your order at your table, or you may be asked to order from an app or their website. The Brewhouse and The Ox still have bar service, but it is through a Perspex screen and you must have found a seat first.

Paying by card reduces handling cash and getting too close. Order a pizza at the Butchers Dog in Ashley Cross and the person taking your order has a PDQ machine taped to a broom handle! It’s horses for courses and everyone will have a preference as to how they want to be served. Looking back now, even after this relatively short amount of time, it seems impossible to imagine standing, cheek by jowl with other customers, generously sharing each other’s viruses! 

All pubs should ask customers to sign in and leave their contact details. Once, this would have been an invasion of privacy, now it is just normal practice and key to helping stop the virus spread. If a pub isn’t doing that, you might want to ask them why they are not.

So, why is it so important to support pubs? Many pubs and bars have had make major purchases such as Cobbs in Hamworthy who have bought additional tables, marquees and heaters to enable customers to sit outside and make use of the large lawn area. This comes at a time when there has been no income for over three months and most pubs have had to make fewer seats available to cater for social distancing needs, which has an impact on their income.

Pubs have been a central to the British community for centuries. They sustained those setting off to discover new lands. Treaties have been signed in pubs. Inventions have been thought up and indeed tested. Friendships and relationships have been forged over a glass or two. Pubs help combat loneliness; you can meet people outside of your household, talk about football, world events, beer, politics (well maybe safest not to), or just talk total rubbish. As long as you are talking then you feel “connected”.

Staff member with novel covid friendly card payment machine

The “new normal” provides a very pleasant environment, but can pubs survive with a reduced capacity? What happens when winter comes and its too cold, wet and windy to sit outside and we haven’t gone back to the “old normal” yet? Over the last decade pubs have closed at alarming rates. Even now, for many, COVID-19 could be the final nail in the coffin. 

Join us by supporting your local pubs. Try a new beer, catch up with old friends and make new ones. At the same time be patient, try to follow the rules. If you are unsure just ask. Local pubs are the cornerstones of communities, and those who joined the off-sales trade proved their value to those who wished to enjoy the pub experience during lockdown. So, pop in to your local, say “hi” and enjoy a pint of ale, cider, wine, or whatever your tipple is. Pubs need you, more than ever before.

Article written Lisa Jones and Darren Lilleker, East Dorset CAMRA

First published in the Harbour Times