Northampton

Coronavirus: What will a re-opened pub be like?

Suzanne Millar
Image caption Reborn on the 4th of July - the Willow and Brook is already booked out for its first day of post-lockdown trade

On 4 July pubs, cafes and restaurants will be allowed to reopen in England. But what awaits those venturing back out into these bastions of normal life?

The Willow and Brook is a village bar and restaurant sitting pretty much in the middle of England in the Northamptonshire village of Apethorpe, about 10 miles west of Peterborough.

Imagine, just for a moment, today is 4 July and the pub is re-opening with certain restrictions.

If you've booked a table, great, you can go to your seats. If not, you can only enter if there's a table free.

At the entrance, there's a hand-sanitising station you need to use.

Image caption One of the five hand-sanitising stations inside the bar and restaurant, which was built in 1904 but had been empty for three years before the Millars bought it

Once inside, you'll hear soft piped music.

The low volume is just enough to give a sense of ambience, says owner Suzanne Millar, but not so loud that anybody has to raise their voices. Raised voices mean more water droplets emanating from people's mouths and that increases the risk of infection transfer.

Your table will be bare. Cutlery, napkins and menus will only be laid once you've taken your seats.

And the staff member serving you will be a strange sight. Decked out in a plastic face shield, you might spot the personal hand sanitiser dangling from their waist clip.

Image caption All staff will wear a full face shield and carry their own personal hand sanitiser

All food and drinks must be ordered from the table. Only staff are allowed at the bar because it is 75cm deep, too shallow to ensure social distancing can be safely observed.

Getting to this point has been a "rollercoaster" for Mrs Millar and her husband (and head chef) Jim.

They only got the keys to the establishment on 16 December before opening on 18 January. Two months later, they were forced to close.

"It was such a crushing moment, I just sat down and cried," said Mrs Millar. "It has been a nerve-wracking time."

What about the rest of the UK?

Each nation is setting its own rules for the reopening of food and drink outlets:

  • In Scotland, beer gardens and outdoor restaurants will be allowed to reopen from 6 July. Pubs and restaurants will be allowed to use indoor areas from 15 July,
  • The next review of Wales's lockdown measures is due on 9 July. The Welsh government has promised talks with the hospitality sector about a "potential phased" reopening of pubs, cafes and restaurants, but no dates have been given for that happening
  • In Northern Ireland, pubs and restaurants can open from 3 July

With a background in NHS occupational health, Mrs Millar hopes she has planned for every eventuality with her re-opening plans.

The layout has been altered slightly to ensure social distancing gaps of about 2m (6ft) between tables, each of which will seat a maximum of six people.

The relaxation of social distancing guidelines in England from 2m to 1m plus has been welcome news for the pub.

"We can get more people in and we feel more secure knowing it's 1m plus," said Mrs Millar.

Image caption Cutlery, napkins and menus will only be laid once visitors have taken their seats

Five hand-sanitising stations have been set up including one at the bar, one in the restaurant and outside the toilets.

There are eight tables inside and four outside in the courtyard. Each member of staff will be responsible for the different areas, says Mrs Millar, to ensure staff can socially distance from one other.

Normally the pub can hold about 30 people in the restaurant and 20 in the bar. This will now be reduced to about 20 in the restaurant and 10 in the bar.

As well as wearing protective equipment - and being banned from wearing rings or watches - staff will have to wash their hands every 20 minutes for at least 20 seconds.

And when a group leaves their table, it is not just the top surface that will be cleaned.

"We will be cleaning the chairs and table legs too," she said. "Nothing on the table will be absorbent.

"We will be putting the table mats through the glass wash to make sure they are sterilised."

Gone are the laminated reusable menus. Instead, Mrs Millar has introduced single-use paper menus which will be destroyed after each sitting.

If you need to use the toilet, a strict one-in, one-out policy is in place.

Image caption Suzanne and Jim Millar only opened The Willow and Brook in January

"We're not messing about," said Mrs Millar. "We're putting the safety of our staff and customers first. I know from my NHS background how infections can spread and I just cannot contemplate having to close again."

Payment - preferably contactless - is done at the table. Those wanting to pay by cash will be presented with a tray on which to put their money before it is taken away and dealt with.

Post-lockdown, the bar and restaurant will be closed every Tuesday while staff carry out a deep clean of the entire establishment.

"It is going to be different," Mrs Millar says. "But I think it is mainly our staff who are really going to feel the difference because a lot of our processes and procedures are going to have changed."

Image caption Mrs Millar said the pub's capacity would be reduced

Of course, the Willow and Brook is an independent bar and restaurant in a small village. So how will things look in the larger pub chains?

Very similar though with a spot of extra technology, according to Nick Attfield, director of properties at Adnams, which runs 45 sites in the eastern region.

"We've got some online portals coming so you will have to book a table," he said. "You will be met at the door or just in reception and shown to your table.

"And we've introduced some technology so all our menus will be online and there will be the opportunity to order online so we can try to minimise the contact as much as possible.

"And then we will have our staff in masks. I keep saying to my team that I don't want them to talk about social distancing. I want them to talk about physical distancing because we still need them to be social in hospitality."

Image copyright Greene King
Image caption Staff at Greene King pubs will be wearing PPE

Greene King, based in Bury St Edmunds, has 1,700 pubs nationwide and is introducing £15m worth of safety measures to protect customers and staff, changing the face of a "normal" pub experience in the process.

Perspex screens and PPE, ordering by app, hand sanitising upon arrival, distanced tables and a one-in, one-out traffic light system for using the toilets, will be just some of the new changes.

Only time will tell whether such measures will work and how many people feel comfortable venturing back out to their favourite pubs and restaurants.

But for Mrs Millar, the signs are good.

"Our village and people in the surrounding villages have been absolutely amazing," she said. "We're fully booked for 4 July. I cannot put into words what their support means to us."

Image caption As well as the eight tables inside the Willow and Brook, there are four tables in the courtyard outside

Photographs by Stuart Bailey

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