Few traditions in Britain are more sacrosanct than strolling into a pub, ordering a pint of beer and striking up a conversation.
The humble public house has been part of daily life in Britain for centuries, and pubs have been immortalized in everything from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales to the television soap opera EastEnders.
But now the future of these gathering places has been thrown into question as the COVID-19 pandemic grinds the country to a halt.
Britain’s 47,000 pubs have been closed for two months as part of a countrywide lockdown, and there are fears that almost half of them won’t reopen. And even if they do, many wonder whether the age-old pastime of heading to your local Cock & Bull for an ale can ever be the same in a world where everyone has to stay two metres apart.
“It’s not going to be possible,” said David Burd, who runs the Stanford Arms with his wife, Samantha, in Lowestoft, eastern England.
The Burds have been trying to sell takeout meals during the lockdown, but that brings in less than half of what they need to break even. He recently put a tape measure on the floor to see how many people he could serve at a time under physical-distancing rules. His best guess was 12, more than 100 less than a typical Friday. “It’s just not financially viable,” he said.
In many communities a shuttered pub means more than just the loss of a popular watering hole.
Pubs are the lifeblood of most rural villages, offering a place to socialize and a home for sports teams, local clubs and all manner of community meetings. It’s where families bring their dogs, tie up their horses outside and spend hours chatting by the fire.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson recognized the significance of pub culture when he announced the lockdown in March.
“We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub. And I can understand how people feel about that,” he said.
“The pub brings people together,” said Nik Antona, chair of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), a non-profit group that works to preserve pubs and helps community groups buy ones that have closed. “It’s where you meet your friends. It’s where you solve the world’s problems.”
Mr. Antona is on a government committee looking into how the hospitality sector can emerge from the lockdown, and CAMRA has sent a questionnaire to its 190,000 members seeking input on physical distancing. “We want to understand what their attitudes will be about going back to the pub, post-COVID. And what restrictions, if any at all, would make them come back to the pub,” he said.
He said he is worried about some of the measures under consideration by the government, such as curtailing the number of patrons and limiting drinkers to three pints to ensure rapid turnover. “Pubs won’t be viable with small numbers allowed inside,” he said. He hopes a compromise will be found and that pub culture won’t suffer irreparable harm. “I think we may cope with [physical distancing] for a while, and then as restrictions get lifted people will revert back to type and we will socialize as we’ve always done."
Pub life was already in a state of flux before the pandemic. The number of pubs has been falling steadily for years in Britain as consumer tastes changed and buying beer in supermarkets became popular. For decades, most pubs were drinking-only establishments, filled mainly with men who drank beer and played darts. Today, most offer a wide variety of food, and many have been transformed into restaurants.
“The pub culture is slowly dwindling,” said Nigel Stevens, 56, who runs the Wyvill Arms in rural Yorkshire with his mother, brother and sister. The Stevens family has been in the pub business for three generations. “You don’t have your outlet where you would go into a pub and you would stand there and have a drink and have a chitchat,” he said. “There’s not the quantity of people coming through the doors who want to drink and socialize as in the old pub days.”
The Wyvill, which dates to the 1700s, has been shut for weeks, and Mr. Stevens isn’t sure how to reopen. He’s run the numbers and thinks physical distancing might be possible, but his revenue will suffer and he may have to cut some of his 18 staff, who all live in the area. “It’s a hard one, really,” he said.
Richard Muir and his family opened a small pub, the Weighbridge Inn, northeast of Birmingham, last July and had big plans for a beer festival this summer. Now, the family is struggling to figure out how to restart the venture, which is among the growing number of micropubs in Britain – drinking-only venues that shun electronic entertainment and only offer snacks.
The Muirs also operate Muirhouse Brewery, which makes craft beer for dozens of pubs, and they had 100 casks on hand when the lockdown started. “I was worried that it would all have to be chucked,” Mr. Muir said. Fortunately, the family has launched a thriving delivery service, offering cases containing nine pints of beer, and the casks haven’t gone to waste.
Mr. Muir, 49, is looking at how to modify the pub to make physical distancing possible, but it won’t be easy. “I don’t think [pub life] is going to disappear, but you’re going to lose quite a few pubs in the process,” he said. “People are desperate to get back to the pub but at the same time they want to be safe."
The government has begun lifting some of the lockdown measures, but pubs won’t be allowed to open until July or August. If it takes much longer, the damage could be catastrophic. A recent survey of pub owners by the British Pub and Beer Association found that 40 per cent would close for good if the measures continued into September.
Jeff Hoyle, a pub enthusiast in Norfolk, isn’t sure pub life will ever return to normal. The retired teacher has been writing about the local pub scene for years. Before the lockdown, he used to head to his favourite watering hole three or four times a week, but he’s barely touched a drop of beer in weeks.
“It’s not the same drinking at home,” he said. He longs for a return to normalcy, but added: “I’m not totally confident that will happen or whether it will ever really be the same again. I think for a lot of people, their lifestyles are going to be permanently changed.”