The pub, ‘rona edition

Greene King has shown us what its 1,700 pubs might look like after lockdown, and it isn’t pretty. The ‘Pub Safe’ initiative, which has cost the company £15 million, centres around hygiene and safety, “while maintaining the atmosphere of the Great British pub”. Sez them.

So what does that look like, then? Well, let’s start with physical changes inside the pubs. The tables, which customers will be encouraged to book in advance, will be spaced further apart. No surprise there, but it’s an important detail to note. It means fewer customers and lower profits.

Next there will be “clear signage to direct customers”. This could just be a bit of tape on the floor to mark out two-metre spaces at the bar, or it could be more. But they haven’t given us much detail here so we move on.

The bar service area will have perspex screens and screening will be positioned between booths where necessary. Sounds nice and welcoming, doesn’t it?

Then we get to the loos. Greene King says it will install one-in-one-out red and green indicators at the entrances to the toilets so customers can flip the indicator with their elbow as they enter and exit. OK, that sounds sensible. Greene King also says the toilets will be cleaned every 15 minutes.

Hang about. Really? How long do you think it takes to clean the bogs? I bet the minimum wage staff are thrilled at this bit in particular. Even if it works as planned at the beginning of the night, this will become significantly harder to maintain as the evening goes on. (I’m being polite here.)

The company said its teams are undergoing comprehensive training and will be temperature checked ahead of every shift. Investment is also being made in additional team members to keep hygiene standards high. Greene King is also rolling out its order and pay app ahead of schedule to all managed pubs. Pubs will provide one-time-use menus that can be disposed of in a sustainable way, cutlery will be wrapped and condiments will be in sachets or in fresh ramekins. A pub host will be on hand at the entrance to welcome each customer, show them to their table and manage queues. Customers will be asked to use the hand sanitiser stations at the entrance on arrival and utilise the many stations placed in key positions during their visit.

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None of this sounds like a pub to me. None of this sounds welcoming or pleasant. Why would you go to a pub if this is what it’s like? It sounds like a cross between an airport lounge and a GP’s waiting room.

Finally, every pub will have its own dedicated “Pub Safe Monitor”. This poor sod, “easily identifiable by their uniform”, will be responsible for “ensuring additional cleaning of tables and public space is done swiftly and efficiently”. The monitor will also be the point of contact for any customer or team member who wishes to raise a concern.

This sounds like an unenviable position combining the worst parts of a skivvy, a frontline customer services rep and a traffic warden — one concenerned not with whether your selfish parking is blocking traffic but with checking you’re not unwittingly killing people by spreading a virus in the middle of a global pandemic. Will this be a minimum wage position too?

Social distancing is bad news for pubs. There’s no way they can be profitable when they’re forced to get by with fewer customers. Greene King has spent £15 million on these changes and will makes less money as a result. When this is all over, how much will it have to spend putting things back to normal? (Or does it intend to keep its pubs like this for ever? Is this just what pubs are like now, in Greene King’s estimation?)

There’s lots to enjoy about a pub. There’s the beer. And yes, that is important. The UK has a rich brewing history, uniquely tied to pubs, and to lose that would be a great cultural blow. And there’s the social aspect as well. That too is of great value. But there’s something even more fundamental about visiting a pub than enjoying the beer or the people. Above all else, pubs are meant to be welcoming, relaxing and enjoyable. These horrendous conditions — which Greene King would obviously rather do without — make pubs none of those things.

Greene King is only making these dreadful changes because it feels it has no alternative. But what happens to the majority of pubs that don’t have Greene-King-level-money down the back of the sofa?

Pubs should not be reopening until it is safe to do so. I think the changes from Greene King show we are not there yet. But also pubs can’t afford to stay closed. There is a point — and I suspect we’re closer to it than most people realise — beyond which they may not be able to reopen again. We don’t want a halfway-house option where a handful of ‘safe’ chain pubs open up and limp along while others — the good ones — go to the wall. All pubs need proper support from government to stay closed until it’s safe to open them properly, i.e. without social distancing.

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