LONDON (Reuters) – The City of London’s pubs emptied this week after the government advised people to work from home and avoid socialising, a devastating blow to businesses that have oiled the wheels of professions like finance, insurance and the law for centuries. FILE PHOTO: People walk past a pub in Fleet Street as the
LONDON (Reuters) – The City of London’s pubs emptied this week after the government advised people to work from home and avoid socialising, a devastating blow to businesses that have oiled the wheels of professions like finance, insurance and the law for centuries.
FILE PHOTO: People walk past a pub in Fleet Street as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in London, Britain, March 18, 2020. REUTERS/John Sibley
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said people should stay away from pubs, clubs and cafes to slow the outbreak of coronavirus, which is advancing fastest in the capital.
But despite rumours and reports of an imminent shutdown, he has not so far ordered them to close as other countries including Ireland have done, leaving businesses in a limbo of needing to keep trading but with barely anybody to serve.
The Punch Tavern, an ornately tiled Victorian pub in London’s Fleet Street and once a key watering hole for newspaper journalists, had three drinkers in on Thursday afternoon. They had called in to have “one last drink in London”.
Thursday is usually the busiest day, general manager Paul Riley told Reuters, with the pub full of professionals from banks and legal chambers along with tourists.
“We’ve had five tables, 15-20 covers. Normally on this particular day we’ll do anything like 500 covers through the day,” he said.
He had already had to let two of his staff go and now needed to know what help would be coming from government.
“We were hoping that government would step in and say there’s a compensation package,” he said. “I know every industry has been hit, but our industry has been directly affected because we rely on groups of people.”
The manager of another City pub, which is owned by a major brewer, said he had already lost 85-90% of sales.
“It is frustrating because the government is advising people not to go to places, but they are not saying the places should just close,” he said.
“We know we are going to lose money but we have to stay open because we’ve got to make a living.”
He said he had been told to slash workers’ hours, close his kitchen early and clamp down on expenditure, including even turning off lights to cut electricity bills.
“My staff are worried because they can’t pay their rent, they can’t pay their bills,” he said. “I’m hoping by Friday at the latest we get an announcement from the government about what is going to happen.”
Johnson’s advice has created a moral dilemma for drinkers: do they carry on supporting businesses that need their money but by doing so, possibly encourage the spread of the virus.
NO STANDING AT THE BAR
Tim Martin, chairman of JD Wetherspoon (JDW.L), one of Britain’s biggest pub chains, said they should stay open.
“You can have rules such as no standing at the bar, cleaning down surfaces every half hour and so on,” he told reporters on Friday. “Closure is far more draconian. We don’t think – as far as we understand it – it brings health benefits. It certainly doesn’t bring economic benefits.”
He said a recession had already started in a “big, big way” in the hospitality industry.
“The advice from the prime minister has caused pub trade and restaurant trade to drop a lot, and we have to have a look in the next few weeks,” he said when asked about Wetherspoon’s prospects.
He interpreted Johnson’s advice as saying people should not be crowding “cheek by jowl” in pubs, rather than avoiding them.
“Pubs and restaurants are part of the architecture of the country where people can buy drinks, buy food,” he said.
“If you go out don’t stand at the bar, sit at a table by yourself and have lunch, go to the loo and then go home, which a lot of people rely on doing, then we are happy enough.”
Ian Brooking, an energy company owner who was drinking in the Punch with his son and a colleague, said the advice about social interaction set the coronavirus crisis apart.
“That’s the fundamental difference between this crisis and other crises: you can’t come together,” he said.
“If this was a wartime environment, this place would be heaving with people. Humans need interaction.”
General Manager Riley said if it was over in a few months, the Punch would bounce back.
“Our regulars will come back,” he said. “Our clients are right on the doorstep and if you’re strong beforehand and you have a good reputation, which we have, you will expect them to come out.”
Editing by Stephen Addison