One morning, very early in January 2020, maybe only a couple of days into the New Year, I remember hearing a brief item on the radio about a virus outbreak in China. I sighed to myself ‘oh, here we go again’, thinking back to the SARS panic around a decade ago.
As the days went by and the situation developed, the outbreak began to feature more prominently in the news: a handful of deaths…proof of transmission between humans…the first cases outside of China…the first deaths outside of China…all leading up to the first reported case in the UK at the end of January.
Throughout January I had my concerns for the future of the business, although I kept these thoughts to myself, not wanting to make my partner anxious or cause our staff to worry. We had just had our busiest Christmas & New Year yet (and I had paid the VAT bill to prove it). ‘Last Christmas’ was one of the holiday songs still stuck in my brain.
Then in mid February, while taking the day off with a couple of staff members to attend a wine tasting, I shared my worry that our trade would soon be affected by the virus: maybe not directly, but certainly indirectly if the public mood changed and people became less inclined to venture out, gather together and spend money.
Business however was good throughout February and well into March. In fact, business was fantastic, although it became obvious that the mood was shifting. We heard less laughter from our customers and more earnest conversation about the possibility of school closures, the spectre of layoffs and panic buying. No wonder the shops didn’t have loo roll, each time somebody sneezed everybody shat themselves!
The death toll was growing in places like Italy and Spain: places some of us had been to on holiday recently, not far-off foreign lands. And yet even when Italy quarantined regions like Lombardy in early March, there was no indication from the UK government that anything similar would happen in Britain.
The Prime Minister attended the Wales v England rugby match. Thousands of Spanish football fans flew into Liverpool, despite being unable to attend La Liga games in their own country. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the Chelthenham races. All the while the news headlines were full of buzzwords like herd immunity, self-isolating, containment, contact tracing etc and my impression was that the UK’s leaders had a plan for dealing with the crisis and that there was no reason to panic.
I reminded staff members about their hygiene training, including the need to stay home if they felt ill and to ring NHS111 if they were worried about their symptoms. I told the glass collectors to wear gloves. I made sure the ventilation fan was switched on more often to refresh the air in the premises. I put signs above the bar and in our windows asking customers to stay home if they felt unwell or would be in contact with vulnerable people.
All these measures were suggestions that we picked up from other bars we followed on social media. Official guidance from the government was limited to common sense rules about hygiene, with no specific recommendations for the hospitality sector being widely promoted.
I also continued to buy stock for the bar. Even then I was convinced that the primary thing which would affect my trade would be the public’s perceptions of the virus, not public infections.
Around the middle of March the potential severity of the situation began to hit home. The Chancellor announced business rescue measures on March 11th. The Prime Minister acknowledged that ‘many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time’ on March 12th. The Premier League suspended matches on March 13th.
That was the weekend I told my staff we needed to encourage the sale of drinks vouchers and off-sales (we’ve had an off-licence for the bar since the day we opened, growing from spare Ikea shelves brought from home to three fridges that lined an entire wall). That was the weekend I decided the quiz on the upcoming Tuesday would be our last for the foreseeable future and I cancelled a gin tasting scheduled for the Wednesday. That was the weekend we cleared the games table and put away the gin & wine menus.
That was also the weekend I sent this message to my deputy manager and assistant manager:-
Later in that same conversation we talked about what it would take to get a home delivery service up and running, whether to offer growler fills and how to take ‘cardholder not present’ payments.
That was also weekend The Guardian published an article that gave some reassurance to both pub owners and pubgoers. As long as there was no direct contact between staff and customers… as long as we washed our hands… as long as we kept our distance…
Reports in the Morning Advertiser also gave some hope to those of us in the trade. Local pubs like mine were not seeing the same downturn in business as city centre venues. Only one in seven respondents to a consumer survey said that fears about the virus would stop them from going to the pub.
Then on the next day after I read all these articles, pubs in Ireland were forced to shut on March 15th, with only a few hours’ warning. Immediately after hearing the news, I began contacting regular suppliers to say we’d no longer be buying cask beer:-
That same evening I proposed to my management team that we call it quits for drinks over the bar at some point in the week..
…but I still had my anxieties:-
We were paying close attention to the daily government briefings but to be honest we were believing (and understanding) less and less of what we were being told. It was obvious that bars and restaurants would have to close at some point, along with schools, and our only hope was that there would be some sort of advance notice.
We decided all we could do was to put in measures to protect the business while we were allowed to implement changes on our own terms, without waiting for government announcements.
At the bar that meant transforming the business from a bar & bottle shop into an off-licence offering home deliveries. We boxed up dozens of cans into cardboard gift boxes, priced them up and promoted them across our social media. We downloaded the app version of iZettle, the payment provider whose card reader I would take to our monthly market stall to take contactless payments, and we figured out how to send payment requests by text to our customers wanting to pay online for beer deliveries and drinks vouchers. We put in further orders for bottles and cans from local brewers.
We knew a lockdown was imminent. Personally, I expected to hear the news on the Monday after Mothers Day. Just in case I decided to treat my mother-in-law to a drive in the remote countryside and a pub lunch as an early Mothers Day present.
Then came a further announcement from the government…of sorts. It was the night that the British people were advised to stay away from pubs, but pubs were not forced to close.
I remember asking my deputy manager, ‘Why won’t the Prime Minister just tell us to close??’
We were not receiving unequivocal guidance from our leaders and our frustration was escalating. It seemed every announcement by the Prime Minister required a full day of explanations and corrections from his ministers as they busied themselves trying to tell us what the PM had meant to say before the next press briefing rolled along.
This particular announcement felt like a betrayal. It made us look irresponsible, when in fact we’d been spending every waking hour pouring all of our energies into looking after our customers.
After debating the situation amongst ourselves and with no clear guidance from the government, we decided to announce to our customers on Thursday morning that we’d be closing the bar early on Friday the 20th. The idea was that while we would no longer be serving drinks over the bar, but would instead remain open as an off-licence and provide home deliveries.
Even that was to change over the weekend when we noticed how many neighbouring shops had shut and how few people were out and about. Despite the government not officially announcing a lockdown, most members of the public had self-imposed a voluntary lockdown. We decided on Monday morning to not allow anyone into the premises. All orders would have to be collected from outside our door or dropped off on the customer’s doorstep.
All bartending staff and glass collectors had been kept informed all along about how the business was changing from a bar to an off-licence. They knew Friday the 20th would be their last shift working at the bar and that they would all be furloughed. On the Tuesday, after taking orders and doing deliveries on my own, I decided that I would be able to shoulder all business responsibilities throughout the lockdown. It was at that point that my deputy manager (whose fiancee’s baby is due at the end of summer) and my assistant manager (who now had a young daughter staying home from school) agreed to furlough as well. On the 25th I paid all their wages for the month of March in full, in the hopes that HMRC will reimburse me for at least some of that bill in the near future.
These are uncertain, fast-moving times (although for many of us life has ground to a halt) and literally in the middle of typing up this post a minister has confirmed that the hospitality sector will be among the last businesses allowed to reopen after lockdown.
I’m signing off for now to digest that news and to discuss the situation with my staff in our WhatsApp group, but I’ll be back very soon to share in detail how we are continuing to trade and what I think pubs need to prepare for as the lockdown becomes ‘the new normal.’
Stay safe and stay sane!