You’ve had a couple of pints and need the loo. Crossing the vast open space of a socially distanced pub, the masked bartender behind the perspexed-screened bar calls out. You’ve forgotten to put your mask on and are breaking the law. Back to the table and on goes the mask. This seems like a very British farce: Brian Rix with beer, perhaps?
Since Thursday evening, going to the pub for an ale has become even more restrictive. Licensed premises (pubs, bars and restaurants) have to close at 10pm. Not the greatest of ideas, perhaps, as the crowded scenes in Central London demonstrated once the new witching hour had passed.
Table service has become obligatory, which is not be a hardship for those of us who regularly drink in European bars or are used to such an approach in gastropubs. Or as one pub-goer in Norwich told me: ‘to be honest I've found table service here has enhanced my pub-going experience, especially in pubs where people crowd the bar.’
However, wet-led pubs that only serve drinks might find this more difficult and certainly less profitable if they have to employ extra (masked) staff to flit between the tables. There is also the case, as a beer-lover on Twitter told me while recounting his experience on the first night of the new rules, of ‘some locals with a sense of ownership going to bar without a mask and talking to staff as they pour pints. Staff need to be supported in fixing those behaviours’.
As for the need to now wear a mask upon entering an establishment (which you take off once seated, remember), I have no problem with it. I have to wear a mask when I go to the butchers or a supermarket, and a lifelong devotion to pubs means that I would put up with most things so that I can drink beer and see friends and generally immerse myself in the special atmosphere of a British pub. You don’t get that in your front room with a bunch of cheap supermarket cans.
From anecdotal evidence, I am not alone in this view. Oli, who works in a Bristol bar, tells me that ‘most people were very happy to wear masks when asked last night. To be honest, we had more grumbles about apps/QR codes and track and trace than masks.’
Meanwhile, Jules Gray, who runs the bottle shop and tasting room Hop Hideout in Kommune, a dining and bar space in Sheffield, told me that ‘most people wear a mask on entry, though a small handful “forgot” to wear one walking around to the facilities. But with a gentle reminder all went back to put one on’.
However, it does seem as if a swift pint now entails more rituals than a Freemason meeting. As well as the mask, you wait at the door to be shown to a table, and don’t forget to tap the pub’s QR code into the NHS app on your smartphone and of course rigorously sanitise your hands. Heaven knows what will happen if the rules change again.
On the night the new rules came into force I met a friend for a couple of beers at one of my favourite pubs. Since reopening it has just provided outside service in the former car park. It was very straightforward. You order and electronically pay for a beer at one window and head to the next-door hatch to get it. You don’t have to wear a mask because it’s outside, but yes, you do have to in the loo. Then you just sit at your table and wave a little Union Jack to attract the server’s attention. Too many people and I imagine it would feel like the Last Night at the Proms.
The possibility for pub comedy has never been greater, which just might make things more tolerable until we can return to the pub as if it was 2019 again. Without masks.