2020 has been a year unlike any other for all of us – not least those of in the pubs and brewing industry.
I’ve been a licensee at The Boot in St Albans for 16 years as well as two other pubs, The Plough in Sleapshyde and Dylans on George Street, and I’ve never experienced anything like this year. From a full-on closure for over 100 days to patchy restrictions and curfews since, most of us in the pubs trade have been scrambling to make heads or tails of our ‘new normal’.
Let me be clear – for me, health and safety is of paramount importance as we fight to contain coronavirus and its impact on the communities we live in. No one wants to see cases spike or hospital beds full. As a pub-owner, I am 100% behind evidence-based restrictions, and the hospitality industry has been at the forefront of creating Covid-safe environments. Us pub-owners have become accustomed to Perspex, contact tracing, hand sanitising and temperature checks, we’ve spent millions to make our venues safe and have followed every revision and curveball the government has thrown at us in its fight to combat the pandemic.
Due to these extra provisions and the reduced consumer confidence in pub-going, our revenue is down to 45-50% on what it was this time last year. Before the 10pm curfew came into place, it was probably closer to about 60%, which means that small safety net has been completely eroded in the last few weeks.
“Our revenue is down to 45-50% on what it was this time last year. Before the 10pm curfew came into place, it was probably closer to about 60%.”
Trying to herd people out of the pub at 10 in a hospitable way has been a nightmare, because our visitors of course want to stay until the last minute. Kicking everyone out in one go onto the streets goes against everything a pub stands for, and it’s been incredibly difficult on our staff who have to work hard to get that balance of being polite right with adhering to safety standards.
Tips and hours have been cut, so our staff are not earning anything close to what they have received in the past. For those staff who will be put back on furlough, 67% of their wages simply isn’t good enough. These people still need to pay their rent. Future closure is going to cost a huge amount for pub owners as well, and new grants won’t touch the sides of it.
Despite our investments, our willingness to change our business model, layouts and staff procedures, pubs continue to be tarred as a scapegoat for Covid-19. We’ve seen no persuasive evidence to date that pubs and hospitality are the hub of spreading the infection, yet we’re being targeted with increasing erratic and unthought out restrictions and measures.
The 10pm curfew is a great example of this. From what I can see, it has been an absolute disaster. People are kicked out of a Covid-safe pub and left to congregate in the streets or head back to private residences to continue with their evening. There are no safety restrictions in people’s homes, which makes them a much more likely spot for Covid transmissions than the supervised setting of a pub environment. To me, it’s a measure that simply hasn’t been thought through.
I think it’s inevitable that we are entering a second wave as university students head back to campus, schools reopen and the rest of us are encouraged back to work. What is frustrating to me as a pub-owner is that we seem to be walking blindly into it rather than looking at what the actual underlying causes are. I fully expect to be closing my business again in the coming weeks. When that happens, it is vital that government support is forthcoming.
“Without ongoing support and greater transparency and clarity for the beer and pub sector, I fear many will close their doors for good.”
The most important thing is having a decent furlough system in place, which has thankfully just been announced. Our staff have gone through enough this year, they need security that they will be able to make ends meet when our business is closed once again. Alongside this, we need weekly support of business grants to remain viable over the next six months.
The best way forward would be for the government to help pub companies by covering the interest payable on their loans attached to property whilst guaranteeing the capital holiday provided by their banks during a closure period. This would be conditional on the pub owning companies passing 80-90% reductions in rent to the publicans during the period.
My hope is that when we do close we will continue to be able to offer a delivery service for our regulars. We’re very lucky in St Albans to have a lot of local support and many people in our area will go out of their way to support us.
I hope too that people in St Albans and beyond will think about their local as the Christmas season approaches. Plenty of pubs and brewers offer takeaway real ale and gin packages that will make a perfect Christmas present, and I hope people will support locals over the supermarkets and Amazon.
Just last week, Greene King announced that they will be laying off hundreds of jobs and closing a third of their pub estate. This is just the first of what I expect will be many announcements and closures to come. Without ongoing support and greater transparency and clarity for the beer and pub sector, I fear many will close their doors for good, and likely just in time for Christmas.
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