July 19, 2021
Freedom Day! To mask, or not to mask? That’s the question.
As Covid restrictions are officially lifted, and the hospitality industry can start getting back to normal, we consider the mood on both sides of the bar.
Freedom Day – or the worst kind of Free-For-All?
It’s been billed as the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the lifting of all legal restrictions brought in to slow the spread of Covid. Being rid of masks and social distancing is considered so significant it’s been dubbed ‘Freedom Day’ – but is there a chance the reality could be more free-for-all than freedom?
How are bars responding to the challenge?
Questions facing the hospitality industry include whether staff should keep wearing masks, how to safely increase capacity and where to put the hand sanitiser. But those are minor issues compared to being encouraged, at the last minute, to ask customers to show so-called Covid passports (proving they’ve had a double dose of the vaccine) as a condition of entry – which licensees said they simply didn’t have enough time or support to be ready to do from the 19th of July.
The other big issue is ensuring there’s enough staff to open. MPs were told last week that a fifth of pub staff are self-isolating. Elsewhere in the industry, holiday park companies are struggling to get enough staff to be able to open all their bars. Staycation may be the trend for this year’s summer hols, but whether there’ll be enough bartenders to serve holidaymakers a cool beer is another matter.
That’s not to say there isn’t excitement and enthusiasm in the trade, but it’s definitely tempered with some apprehension. To mask or not to mask may be the question, but it could be in vain if customers aren’t ready to return. To get a feel for the mood in front of the bar we asked some veteran pub-goers how the Covid era has altered their experience and how Freedom Day changes will affect them.
Everything’s on the table
“I would love table service to stay forever!” says Rachel Woolgar, a marketing executive from Basingstoke, who’s made plenty of visits to the pub since 12th April. Despite her declaration, she’s found that table service is hit and miss, with ordering apps not always reliable and how to order not always made clear. Come ‘Freedom Day’ though she says she’ll be looking to go to pubs that are still following the restrictions, rather than those who abandon them.
Writer Kelly Rose Bradford from West London concurs. She’ll only be going to pubs that continue with the measures, including asking customers to check-in, and – like Rachel – she’d prefer table service to remain the norm.
“If anything, the lifting of the restrictions has totally put me off going to the pub,” she says. “While they were in place, I could take a belt and braces approach. I knew they were following protocols and I mostly went to very quiet pubs or beer gardens during the day and left when they started to get busy.” She adds that she’s not looking forward to the return of the crowded pub with ‘seat surfing and scuffles at the bar’ which she thinks will make personal methods of protection useless.
Jerry Bartlett, a Surrey-based technical writer and editor, ventured back to the pub this Spring. Having previously been in a position of ‘more-or-less shielding’ it was only the table service which enabled him to do so. If it disappears from the pub, reluctantly, so will he. He’d also like pubs to ask customers to carry on wearing masks when not sat at tables and thinks staff should keep wearing them too.
As a wine educator and beer aficionado it’s no surprise Sam Hill, who’s based in South London, was back at the pub as soon as he could be. Another fan of table service (‘long may it continue’), he thinks that, along with continued mask-wearing and one-way systems, it’s the thing that will give him the confidence to continue going out for drinks.
Freedom to Choose Day
It seems those we quote above aren’t going to struggle to find a pub that suits their needs. In general, while some businesses intend to reintroduce pre-Covid table settings, reduce the amount of hand sanitiser stations and make the wearing of masks optional, more are planning to continue with pre-19th July restrictions – including the now beloved table service.
One thing’s for sure, it’s still not going to be a normal summer, but provided customers feel safe and staffing levels aren’t hammered by unmanageable amounts of test and trace ‘pings’, the necessity that is the Covid-inspired staycation may turn out the saviour of the hospitality trade.