Can pubs, cafes, restaurants and their patrons be trusted during times of crisis?
By bringing last orders forward to 10pm, the government’s opinion on the matter is clear.
It’s a resounding ‘no’.
COVID is suddenly swarming all over Britain again – and the finger of blame is being pointed squarely at the pubs.
The virus enjoyed a fresh lease of life when the quarantine barriers came down in summer, gleefully trampling over the fragile Test & Trace system which folded at the first sign of pressure.
Today, the UK is registering its highest case rate since May.
Yet just a few weeks ago, the government was urging the public to drink and dine out in droves – reassuring them all was safe and well with social distancing measures intact.
In a spectacular u-turn, it’s been decided that all hospitality in England must shut early from Thursday to halt the spread of COVID – a curfew that could be intact for six months.
COVID has turned hospitality into the black sheep of the economy.
The food and drink sector has been treated like unruly troublemaker that repeatedly needs scolding, reprimanding and restraining in the current dangerous climate.
You can’t the trust the company it keeps, and if you give it an inch, it’ll take a mile.
This is the government’s attitude, but the sector sees things differently.
Pubs, restaurants and cafes have spent half a year trying desperately hard to tick off an ever-changing COVID-criteria checklist with two hands tied behind their back.
So far, they’ve gritted their teeth whilst spinning plates and redecorating.
But the new law – shutting at 10pm – seems like it might just be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Exhausted, depleted and in some cases downright angry, hospitality is beginning to fight back against its ‘scapegoat’ label.
A social media movement – spearheaded by BarChick – is gaining traction as food and drink outlets argue that their industry “deserves better”.
BarChick has praised the fast implementation of new safety measures, “kick-ass teams” who have “pivoted the way they work”, and the “brave owners” of bars in Britain.
Their argument is that hospitality, by and large, is going above and beyond what is required – and is entitled to more respect.
According to the campaign, less than 5% of new cases have been attributed to the hospitality sector (although it is unclear as to where these stats were obtained).
Martin Greenhow, Managing Director at MOJO – a popular city centre bar in Manchester – called the new curbs “unjust, punitive, illogical and irrational”, claiming there is no “evidence to support the assumption that hospitality is driving infection”.
“Only 35 cases reported in the sector and as of yet no sign of the threatened dramatic upturn in deaths,” said Greenhow.
“The move to curtail the operational hours of our already crippled industry seems unjust and punitive, not to mention illogical and irrational.
“Are people more infectious after 10pm?
“Hospitality has slaved to work responsibly within the constraints laid out for us and now we are being thrown aside with scant concern for the impact these measures will have on our businesses and the wider economy.”
Carl Morris, a representative at Yard and Coop restaurant in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, reassured the public that the venue was still a safe place to visit, urging customers not to be deterred by the curfew.
“As a hospitality business we are finding all the ever changing restrictions extremely challenging and are urging all customers to continue to support our small independent business,” he said.
“We are also reminding everybody that we are a really safe place to come and enjoy a meal out and drinks with their families and households.”
Tonight (Wednesday 23) is the last time pubs will be permitted to remain open past 22:00 until possibly March – which would mark almost a year to the day they were all shut down.
There are some small silver linings for hospitality.
So far, there’s been no second national lockdown, and the food/drinks industry can continue to trade.
Indeed, some other sectors have had it even worse.
Take live music for instance.
Musicians, venue operators and festival hosts have been left feeling abandoned since COVID came along – and would likely give anything to swap positions with hospitality right now.
Some casino staff have been furloughed for so long they’ve probably forgotten the rules of Blackjack, whereas bowling alley workers are also struggling to find their feet again after being closed throughout much of the summer.
The ability to look on the bright side, though, is a necessary trait looking ahead. Hospitality needs to get into the right frame of mind and psych itself up for what is guaranteed to be a true test of mettle this winter.
The logic behind the early bell is that closing pubs sooner will result in fewer drunken yobs breaking social distancing rules and prevent people from staying indoors too long – which is what can cause the virus to spread.
Night-time bars will now need to find a way to survive.
Do they open earlier? Do they open on their usual days off? Or do they change the menu to attract more customers during the day?
Some experts have commended the government’s move as necessary, but others are sceptical – claiming the act will just see a rise in house parties.
Wales has already attempted to combat the prospect of gaff raves by banning the sale of booze in shops after 10pm.
Whether England follow suit remains to be seen.
For now, the government continues to keep a hawk-like eye on hospitality.
Only this time, the industry is glaring back.