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England has one of the world’s worst Covid death rates. Now many fear it’s about to drink itself into chaos – CNN

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(CNN) — The thought of a pint of beer in a proper pub is a dream that has sustained many people in the UK through the tough months of coronavirus lockdown, but as the doors to drinking establishments in England finally reopen after four months on Saturday, a potential nightmare looms.

Just a week after thousands of British people flouted social-distancing rules to crowd beaches in a heatwave, it’s feared the heady mix of alcohol and a sense of liberation from restrictions, at a time when daily infections are still in the hundreds, could prove disastrous.

Extra police have been put on standby, warnings have been issued by the government and numerous guidelines put in place. But concerns still remain that, no matter how committed people are to keeping coronavirus at bay, after a few drinks that will all go out of the window.

In the days before July 4, thirsty Brits could be forgiven for looking ahead to a day of carefree celebration. Amid announcements of several new freedoms, newspapers called it “Independence Day” or “Super Saturday” while Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was a “patriotic duty” to go to the pub.

Of course, going to the pub isn’t going to be the same breezy experience as it was before the pandemic. As with everything in this brave new world, there are rules. Forty-six pages of them, to be precise. Those inevitably mean confusion, and potential for further chaos.

A quiet place

Social distancing markers are laid in front of the bar at the Chandos Arms pub in London.

Social distancing markers are laid in front of the bar at the Chandos Arms pub in London.

Frank Augstein/AP

For the most part, drinkers will need to pre-book. Table service is in while the tradition of propping up the bar and waving bank notes at overrun staff to get their attention is out.

In larger chain pubs, such as those run by the Wetherspoons company, drinks will have to be ordered via an app. Contactless card payments, instead of cash, are set to become the norm.

There’ll be no more crowding into spaces the size of living rooms to cheer on soccer teams in their final few matches of the Premier League season. Sport can be screened, but quietly. Music too must only be played at low volume. Speaking loudly and shouting can spread the virus, so punters are also being asked to keep the noise down.

“For the customer, with screens separating the bar and pay points, servers needing to wear PPE such as masks and visors, one-way systems, and the need to stay outside as much as possible — not only will the pub look physically different, but the experience itself will feel very different too,” says James Lintern, co-founder of RotaCloud, which provides staff management software to pubs.

“We will be introducing several changes,” says Keith McAvoy, CEO of Se7en Brothers Brewing Co and owner of two beer houses in Manchester. These include table service, dividing screens to split up large tables, full PPE for staff and reducing customer numbers from 150 to between 50 and 70.

“The biggest will be the number of customers allowed in the bars, we will have to remove all drinking at the bar and standing,” he adds.

Pods and bubbles

whyte hart

Dining pods created for the White Hart of Wytham pub.

Courtesy White Hart of Wytham

July 4 also sees England reduce social-distancing guidelines from two meters to one, a move lobbied for by many in the hospitality industry who say that the original advice would make it impossible to accommodate enough customers to turn a profit. Even at one meter, it will be a struggle.

McAvoy says his pubs will be sticking to two meters. He says this is because of the lack of proper rules put down by government and local authorities. Like others, he views that 46-page document as more of a guide than a rulebook.

Every pub owner seems to be taking a different approach. At The White Hart of Wytham, in a village on the outskirts of the city of Oxford, staff have taken a more extreme line, creating new outdoor dining pods.

“We made an early reckoning that the pandemic was going to hit the hospitality industry hard and that we’d have to think on our feet to ride it out,” says owner Baz Butcher. “We had someone in the village create 10 of these dining pods. Made from mostly recycled materials, they can also be put together for larger bubbles.”

While some pubs will ask drinkers to pre-book, others are saying they will follow the approach taken by retail outlets, with socially distanced queues and a one-in, one-out system.

“The government guidance is thorough, but just that — guidance,” says James Lintern. “The onus is on pubs to decide how to implement it, and there is a lot of room for interpretation.”

It’s a view echoed by Stuart Langley, owner of The Dartmouth Arms in north London. “The government guidelines are open to widely different interpretations, reader to reader,” he says. “I think you will see businesses cover themselves in hazard tape and safety signage — and wonder why nobody is coming through the door. I think you will see businesses that open with minimal changes to their operation — and be accused of neglect, despite working well within the guidance.”

‘Knife edge’

Crowds swarmed beaches during the UK's recent heatwave.

Crowds swarmed beaches during the UK’s recent heatwave.

Andrew Matthews/AP

Langley says he hopes the new rules don’t result in a massive booze-up, echoing concerns of leading experts who question the wisdom of reopening on Saturday, particularly in light of the recent heatwave beach invasion during which many Brits drank themselves into oblivion.

The UK’s former chief scientific adviser, David King, who heads up an independent advisory group on coronavirus, called the plans “extraordinarily risky.” Jeremy Farrar, who sits on SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group), the UK government’s sometimes secretive body of experts, says the country is on a “knife edge.”

“We’re keen to avoid a big reopening celebration,” says Langley. “It’s all about getting the place open and ensuring our local community can be confident that Dartmouth Arms is a safe and enjoyable environment for them to be.”

Amid mounting concerns, Prime Minister Johnson has also rolled back his earlier bullishness. He told the LBC radio station: “I hope people will do this safely and sensibly. My message is let’s not blow it now, folks.”

Others, too, have urged everyone to take it easy. A joint statement by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and several hospitality organizations asked pub-goers to be supportive of staff. “It’s important everyone respects the new measures in place to ensure everyone can enjoy the return of our pubs safely.”

The consequences of unruly or risky behavior could be a second wave of coronavirus cases, just as the UK appears to be bringing the virus under control. Beyond the pandemic, it could have consequences for the future of pubs themselves and the community lifelines they offer. Many wouldn’t survive a second lockdown.

The UK’s pub industry was already in a dire state before coronavirus took hold. Research by the Campaign For Real Ale in 2019 found that pubs were closing at a rate of 14 a week, with the availability of cheap superstore alcohol and rising business overheads blamed.

“The fair and responsible thing is to reopen things slowly,” says Jen Left, who runs The Hand in Hand brew pub in Brighton’s Kemptown neighborhood.

This tiny drinking hole dates back 200 years and is a community hub as much as a pub. During lockdown, it’s been serving beers through a newly built hatch. It has offered free drinks to weary workers at the nearby hospital, with regulars keeping a keen eye out for those among them who are still isolating.

“One thing that we’ve learned in the lockdown is so much more about the community,” says Left. “People have been helping each other out a lot. There are a lot of vulnerable people around here. We’re conscious of the fact that people have worked so hard to protect people. We don’t want to be irresponsible and start up again just to make money. We’re OK with the beer hatch being open and we think we’ll survive for the summer.”

Get outdoors

hand in hand

Jen and Clark Left at the Hand in Hand pub in Brighton.

Courtesy Hand In Hand

Like many pubs, The Hand in Hand will be looking to move its operation outdoors completely for the summer. Left has rented a small car parking space opposite the pub to accommodate drinkers.

The government has said it will relax planning laws to allow for easy access permits for outdoor drinking, with applications costing just £100 (about $125). There’s wider talk of local authorities closing roads and allowing pubs to spill out further into streets, especially in areas with narrow streets such as London’s Soho.

But what happens once the summer ends and the weather turns? With coronavirus known to spread more quickly indoors than out, pubs are going to have to find safe ways to ensure social distancing and maintain confidence among customers that they will not become infected.

Some pub chains are looking into coating surfaces in copper, which is said to reduce coronavirus “dwell time.” Others, like the Hand in Hand, are focusing on isolating customers from each other.

Government guidance asks that pubs will need to keep a record of all drinkers for 21 days, in order to help with its track and trace system, but stresses that it is not compulsory for guests to supply their personal details.

It’s clear that going out for a drink in the near future could be a complicated exercise, but there’s no doubt the urge is still there.

“Since Boris announced he was ready to reopen pubs and restaurants we have been swamped by calls, emails and social media requests for tables,” says Lawrence Santi.

“For me it’s mainly trying to normalize being in the pub ASAP,” says Colette Doyle, who works in The Crown in Harlow, northeast of London, and will be going there on Saturday as a rest stop on a bike ride. She works in the kitchen and says she needs to get used to being in that environment when it reopens later in the month.

‘Sheer bliss’

Rolling out the barrel: Pubs have been shut for four months.

Rolling out the barrel: Pubs have been shut for four months.

Danny Lawson/PA Wire via AP

“Having a proper pint from a pump and a bit of banter with my mates is what it’s all about,” says Dan Harris, who plans to go for a pint in the nearby Chequers pub after spending his first day back at work at his Harris Barber Lounge on Saturday. Hairdressers are also reopening this weekend in England.

“There’s something I’ve just missed about pubs, way more than shops or cafes or clubs,” says Andy De Vries, creative director at Mighty Elk Animation, who lives in Leyton. “Pubs are designed specifically with socializing in mind. It just takes organizing out of the equation. And even though it’s been nice to save a bit of money, who doesn’t miss a nice cold pint straight from the tap. And then there’s the people-watching; it can’t be beat.”

For Suzanna, who didn’t want to give her last name, going to her local, The Old Posting House in Deanscales, Cumbria is all about supporting a business that had become a cornerstone of the village.

“I’m not a big drinker, it’s an occasional treat for me after a long walk or swim,” she says. “I certainly won’t be heading out on a bender. But to know I can walk to the end of my village and enjoy a pint of Guinness? Sheer bliss.”

While there will be plenty of drinkers behaving responsibly, undoubtedly it’s the ones who don’t that will be grabbing the headlines.

James Lintern sums it up best. “How stringently people will follow social distancing guidelines when they’ve had a few remains to be seen.”

Going for a swift pint has never been so fraught with risk.

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