British pubs were on life support before the pandemic. Many won’t survive new restrictions

British pubs were on life support before the pandemic. Many won’t survive new restrictions

The Southampton Arms barely survived the spring.

For three and a half months, during the first peak of the pandemic, the UK government ordered the country’s pubs, bars and restaurants closed. For many — including the Southampton Arms, an independent boozer in north London — it wasn’t clear they’d ever be able to open again.

Pete Holt, the owner for the past decade, said furlough payments to staff from the government were a “godsend.” But ultimately, it was the landlord’s decision to waive rent during the lockdown that allowed the business to keep going.

“That saved us from complete destruction,” Holt said.

Now, the Southampton Arms is in trouble again. Starting on Thursday, new restrictions aimed at controlling a second wave of coronavirus cases in the United Kingdom will take effect, including mandatory table service at pubs in England and a 10:00 p.m. closing time. Pubs in Scotland and Wales also face a curfew.

Those may not sound like major changes. But for struggling pubs, it could be the final nail in the coffin. Industry groups say shorter service and increased costs put thousands of jobs at risk, while threatening an institution that is at the heart of British life.

“I think this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for many,” Tim Martin, founder and chairman of the Wetherspoon pub chain, told CNN Business.

‘The cornerstone of British society’

In 1946, George Orwell — most famous for tackling communism in “Animal Farm” and surveillance states in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” — devoted an entire newspaper column to describing his ideal pub, a fictional spot he called the “Moon Under Water.” Victorian fittings, liver-sausage sandwiches and friendly barmaids are essential, he wrote, and “atmosphere” is practically more important than the beer.

The pub has maintained its attraction for many Britons, even as other destinations for drinking and socializing have cropped up across the country. Many have a mythic quality, and even those that are managed by chains tout their historic credentials. (Take the London Bridge pub The George, which is featured in the Charles Dickens novel “Little Dorrit.” It’s now one of 2,700 pubs in the Greene King portfolio.)

“The pub is the cornerstone of British society, really,” said Pete Brown, author of “The Pub: A Cultural Institution.” “It’s so much more than a place where you can go and get a drink.”

That meant that when the UK government ordered all pubs closed in March — for the first time in the country’s history — many Britons were rattled. Pubs stayed open during World War I and World War II to boost morale.

“I do accept that what we’re doing is extraordinary,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a news conference. “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.”

Even before the pandemic hit, the industry was struggling, as people ditched drinking in pubs for bars, restaurants and their homes. Between 2008 and 2018, more than 11,000 pubs closed their doors, according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, reducing the total number by almost a quarter.

Roughly 90% of the country’s remaining pubs have reopened since the government gave the green light on July 4, according to an analysis by the consultancy CGA. But there’s been deep scarring.

“The pubs suffered a brutal shock when they were closed with no notice,” Wetherspoon’s Martin said. “The way it was done caused many problems and caused tens of millions of pounds of lost stock.”

New restrictions

Holt of the Southampton Arms said he’s “very worried” about the new restrictions. Mandatory table service, he said, will force him to increase the number of people working shifts, raising labor costs, while having to shut early will mean losing valuable business.

“We’re already struggling to break even,” he said. “Without further support from the landlord, it’s going to be impossible.”

Darren Wilton, owner of the Old Neptune in Whitstable, said the summer has been busy. The pub, which is on the beach, has plenty of outdoor space, and has been helped by months of good weather. But he’s worried about the fall and winter.

“It’s going to be devastating for us and a lot of other businesses,” Wilton said. He noted that the interior of the Old Neptune is not designed for social distancing. “We had a little room inside, now we have even less room. People can’t come in and sit at the bar.”

In addition to the 10:00 p.m. closing time and required table service, pubs in England face new rules on how to register customers at the door. Patrons and workers are also now required by law to wear masks inside unless they’re eating or drinking.

The Johnson government has defended the new restrictions as crucial given the alarming trajectory of coronavirus cases.

This week, the country’s chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser told the public that the number of infections was doubling every seven days, and warned that without further intervention, the United Kingdom could see infections rise from the 6,178 recorded on Wednesday to 50,000 a day in October.

Pub owners acknowledge that the health crisis is worsening. But many argue that targeting them is misguided, noting that it could just lead to more people congregating in private spaces like homes.

“I don’t think many scientists believe that having a curfew will bring the virus under control,” Wetherspoon’s Martin said. “It’s illogical.”

Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said in a statement that there “seems to be little available evidence that pubs, with their strict adherence to government guidelines, are unsafe.”

“Pubs were struggling to break even before today and these latest restrictions will push some to breaking point,” she said. “Removing a key trading hour on top of fragile consumer confidence and the reduced capacity pubs already face will put thousands more pubs and jobs at risk.”

So far, many pubs have been kept afloat by help from the government, which has offered one-time £10,000 ($12,728) grants to small businesses and tax relief. Conscious of the impact of the fresh measures, finance minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday announced new wage subsidies and loan programs, and said that a 15% sales tax cut for the hospitality sector would be extended through March 2021.

Thanks to such actions, permanent closures are actually pacing behind 2019, according to real estate adviser Altus Group. But the number of pubs expected to close their doors for good is now poised to accelerate — especially given the uncertainty around Christmas, a crucial season for bookings.

“We aren’t looking at a death of the pub here,” Brown, the historian, said. “But we are talking about a thinning of the numbers.”

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