Day 6

Bumpy ride for U.K. pubs reopening as pandemic restrictions lift

After shutting doors for several months in keeping with public health measures, several establishments have had to close within days of getting the green-light to allow customers in their doors again.

Several establishments have had to close again after customers or staff test positive for COVID-19

At the Hand in Hand Brew Pub in Brighton, England, an employee stands at the makeshift bar set up at the doorway. Across the street is a beer garden set up in a small rented parking space to allow for physically distanced drinking. (Submitted by Jennifer Left)

It's been a rough time for pubs in the United Kingdom.

After shutting doors for several months in keeping with public health measures, several establishments closed within days of getting the green light to allow customers in their doors again.

Pubs in Somerset, West Yorkshire and Hampshire counties closed shortly after reopening July 4 when a customer or staff member tested positive for COVID-19.

Because they are now required to take patrons' contact information and note their arrival time, the pubs were able to start contract tracing right away, according to media reports, and so far avoid larger outbreaks.

Cramming into a pub after work — shoulder-to-shoulder with colleagues — is key to the fabric of culture and community in the U.K. 

But now, government guidelines allow for table service only — no leaning over the bar during a football match or post-work pint.

The pandemic has inspired pub owners to get creative in how they serve customers, leaving the crowded revelry to the side while business gradually gets underway.

New ways with an age-old business

Baz and Jo Butcher own the White Hart at Wytham outside Oxford, a classic Cotswold stone pub that's been around since the 16th century.

Its courtyard garden is now home to individual dining pods enclosed on three sides with Plexiglas roofs and decked out with flowers and strings of twinkly lights.

"The idea was that they should look like a little mini gypsy caravan," said Jo Butcher. "They're completely safe, and it's distanced dining."

At the White Hart at Wytham outside Oxford, the pub's courtyard is now home to individual dining pods enclosed on three sides with Plexiglas roofs and decked out with flowers and strings of twinkly lights. (Submitted by Baz Butcher)

"They've been a great success so far. We had a huge waiting list of people wanting to book even before we were allowed to open the pub up again. We have the 10 pods in the courtyard, and they look so pretty." 

Closing down in March was hard for Baz Butcher. "But we are part of a small village community, and as a landlord pub, it's my obligation and love, really, to make sure that our local community is OK," he said.

"But we then said, 'Look, how can we help the villagers, many of whom are elderly and locked down?' So we spent the best part of two and a half months delivering takeaway meals to our community."

Baz and Jo Butcher are the owners of the White Hart at Wytham, a pub that’s been around since the 16th century. (Submitted by Baz Butcher)

Jennifer Left owns the Hand in Hand Brew Pub in Brighton, England, a traditional backstreet neighbourhood bar that she describes as "the kind of place where you can go and you'll walk out with 10 new friends."

"We have jazz every Sunday … and it gets so packed it's like a sweatbox. Even though it's so tiny, we can get six musicians stuffed in the corner next to the piano."

In the early days of the COVID crisis, she simply reduced her numbers, asking some of the older retired customers who count on the pub for social connection to come during the day instead of later in the evening.

"I had to limit my customers from, you know, the normal rowdy bunch of 50 drunken pirates to just 15."

When she had to close the pub on March 21, she "went upstairs and had a little cry."

"The five years that I've had it, and in all the times I've known it historically, because I worked there before I bought the pub since 2007, I've never known it to close, ever. I mean, I've worked every Christmas Day; even on our wedding day the pub didn't shut."

Before bars were allowed to reopen, Jennifer Left, owner of Hand in Hand Brew Pub in Brighton, England, sold beer out of milk cartons from the doorway of her establishment. (Submitted by Jennifer Left)

Happy pub is pulling pints again

But after exploring several options, including buying an old milk van or ice cream truck to deliver beer — which proved too expensive — she set up at the doorway and sold carry-away beer and kombucha in milk cartons. Soon, she had to bring back some of her furloughed workers to keep up.

Pubs were allowed to reopen again July 4 but given the size of her pub, Left has gone a different direction, renting a small parking lot across the street and setting up "a little beer garden, basically."

She and her staff wear masks and gloves, and tables are wiped with extra diligence. "We sit customers down at a safe distance," said Left.

Then, in accordance with public health guidelines for contact tracing, they take customers' names and numbers, which are stored on a secure database that's automatically wiped after 21 days.

Left says her customers are glad the pub is pulling pints again, even with the new restrictions.

"They're just happy to see things opening up again, and they're happy. That's the thing that people really want the most was just to drink a pint out of the glass. And not a can. Not a milk carton."

Written by Brandie Weikle. Produced by Rachel Levy-Mclaughlin.

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