Pubs in south London have reopened with more of an initial whimper than a bang, as the thirstiest punters were given a taste of the post-coronavirus reality facing one of the nation’s favourite habitats.
Despite pubs being granted permission to start serving at 6am, there appeared little sign of the New Year’s Eve-esque “Super Saturday” hype forecast by many, with some establishments remaining shuttered after midday and others, on the face of it, appearing relatively empty.
In Tooting, the queues outside hairdressers by far outstripped those outside favoured locals – an outcome that had been hinted at by Redfield & Wilton polling for the BBC, which indicated just seven per cent of adults in England intended to visit a pub this weekend.
While several people spoken to by The Independent questioned whether the calm and ordered atmosphere would hold come Saturday night, the clear contrast with a trip to the pub before they were forced to close more than 100 days ago was stark.
Customers were greeted at doorways with hand sanitisers and test and trace forms, in many cases asked if they had a booking and how many people would be sitting at their table – which could seat a maximum of six people.
“It’s like a restaurant,” one Wetherspoons customer remarked, although the reality was often not far from checking into a hotel, with drinkers given a short tour of the premises, told how to order drinks, which directions to walk, where to stand and queue at the bar, and where to leave their contact-tracing forms on their way out.
With customers forbidden from propping up the bar in most establishments, Wetherspoons customers are asked to stand in a small box at the bar demarcated by black and yellow tape on the floor.
Asked how she is feeling about the reopening, a bartender replied from behind perspex glass that she is “stressed” – a feeling unlikely to be due to high levels of custom, given JJ Moon’s typical capacity of 290 people has been reduced to 79 to allow for social distancing, and more likely due to the challenges in navigating and enforcing the new rules.
John, a 66-year-old who lives in Putney and was enjoying a pint with a newspaper in the Tooting Broadway pub, said: “This tastes a lot better out of a glass than it does out of a tin, that I can tell you.”
While he said that the return to pubs pales in comparison with seeing his grandchildren after three months of shielding, he agreed that the renewed sense of community would offer a boost after the hardships of lockdown.
“At the moment, where this pub’s concerned, it seems to be working out fine, but you can’t judge one pub by all pubs,” he said. “The way it is in here now, it’s quite modern. It’s not too hectic either. I’m quite happy with it.”
Of whether pre-booking systems could affect the spontaneity of going for a drink, he added: “Possibly, it all depends how busy it is. Saturday night, a lot of people, in the event of a football match where it’s screened in certain pubs, that could take its toll.
“You’ll probably have a line-up about half a mile down the road waiting to get in to see the match.”
While JJ Moons, the only pub in Tooting with a short queue outside, appeared to be at capacity, a focus on table service saw groups and individuals more or less marooned at their tables, leaving plenty of rare open space typically filled with bodies and precariously held pints.
In the relatively quiet atmosphere, one elderly local joked with an acquaintance several tables away that he’d been thinking about stopping drinking, adding: “But when you get that first pint, that’s it, isn’t it? It’s nice to be able to come out and talk, that’s the difference – socialising.”
Several hundred yards away in The Antelope – a popular local – customers are asked if they have a booking, and are greeted with a form titled “The Antelope’s New Normal”.
“Like Boris, we are relying on the cooperation and common sense of you all so please remember that when pubs aren’t exactly how you remember them, or hoped they would be, we’ve all been in lockdown too,” it reads. “Things will get back to normal, just not straight away. Please be patient with us.”
By 2pm, the indoor seating areas and beer garden were already well-populated, with table service rendering it unnecessary for customers to order at the bar.
Emma, a 25-year-old from Margate, and Taylor, a 24-year-old from Cambridgeshire both told The Independent it was “fantastic” to be back in a pub, but said they were visiting London with the intention of looking for a flat to rent post-lockdown, rather than going drinking.
“It’s weird but it feels normal at the same time,” Emma said. “Walking in with all the segregated walkways, that was odd, but being outside it feels just normal still ... I just want a pint – drinking beer from the bottle is not the same.”
Taylor said: “I wouldn’t feel comfortable meeting a big group of people in a pub at the moment, unless it was in a big outside area”, while Emma added: “I think now it’s fine but later it’s going to get stressful. I can imagine it getting pretty out of hand.”
Asked whether they expect people to maintain social distancing later, they reply “absolutely not” and “definitely not”.
While the stringent new rules make it seem likely that social distancing may largely be maintained within establishments, policing the streets outside may prove more difficult – particularly given the difficulties of getting into already busy pubs and bars without a booking, and the relatively short stays allowed.
Taylor added: “In London, walking down the street, it’s so busy. So if you put that with alcohol, it’s not going to end well.”
Speaking in light of the crowds seen in Clapham, Streatham and Tooting Bec Commons in recent weeks (a 26-year-old friend texts at around 1pm reporting Clapham is already “rammed”), she added: “If you think at how stressful the parks have been, imagine that in a pub. It’s going to be horrible.”
The government itself appears to have tempered its vocal desire for the nation to drink to the economy’s good health on Saturday, with the prime minister contradicting Jacob Rees-Mogg’s “yard of ale” comments and HM Treasury deleting a celebratory “pubs are back” tweet, telling the public to “grab a drink and raise a glass”.
While it is far from clear what lasting effect the virus will have upon England’s pub culture, the effects of lockdown upon individuals’ drinking habits are also cause for concern in some quarters.
Research published on Friday by Alcohol Change UK found that 28 per cent of those surveyed who have ever drunk alcohol think they have been drinking more during lockdown. As pubs reopen and lockdown eases, two thirds polled said they expect to continue drinking as they have been during lockdown, or even drink more.
Emma said that while she had spent lockdown with her family, who do not drink much, she believes many of her friends who live in London are going to the park “regularly” and drinking more “just because it’s something to do”.
But asked whether she would return to the pub as often as before the pandemic, Emma replied: “No. I think where you can sit in a park and drink, I would definitely choose that over going to the pub still.”