U.K. Pubs Count Cost of an Hour as Curfew Hits Bruised Bars
Before this week, the Prince of Peckham pub was regaining stable footing after losing several months’ worth of sales to a national lockdown. In the low-lit south London tavern, young drinkers lounged on chesterfield sofas well past 2 a.m., enjoying pints of ale, fried croquettes and unsocially-distanced courting.
It wasn’t to last. On Thursday, the ax fell on the U.K. hospitality industry. The government enforced a curfew that forces all bars and restaurants in the country to close at 10 p.m. in a bid to stem the latest flare-up of the coronavirus.
The new policy will see last orders placed at 9:30 p.m. at most bars so that people can drink up in time. And it will devastate establishments such as the Prince of Peckham, where more than half the day’s revenue is generated closer to midnight.
“It’s going to hit us really hard and there should be more support for the people who need it,” said Yanna Richards, one of the pub’s managers. Richards also said the policy’s implication that the novel coronavirus isn’t transmitted until 10 p.m. is absurd.
It’s a sentiment echoed by pub revelers accustomed to a traditional closing time of 11 p.m. and who fail to see what benefit would come from drawing the evening to a precocious end.
The counter-argument is that a 10 p.m. curfew will help break up large gatherings indoors around the time when people drink more and might let down their social-distancing guard. But for restaurants and bars, the lost hours tend to be among their most profitable, further hurting an industry that the coronavirus had already brought to its knees.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the step after infection rates surged again in the U.K. On the day the curfew was enforced, new cases reached the highest daily total since the start of the pandemic.
Although pubs have been challenged by the rise of wine and cocktail bars in recent years, they remain a folkloric national treasure. Long worshipped as an idyll of hearty lunchtime staples such as steak and ale pies as well as village cask beers, they are also the venue of choice to belt out the national anthem ahead of a televised rugby match, and often home to boisterous debates, quiz nights and darts tournaments that knit together Britain’s communities.
‘No Fun Anymore’
Far from being noisy now, the pubs around many of London’s buzzing areas have fallen eerily quiet, some observers say. Waiting staff at the Fentiman Arms in Oval lament about service being “no fun anymore” as customers adjust to the new curfew rules on top of the social distancing norms.
Take the case of The Chandos, a pub in the enviable spot bordering London’s trendy Soho district and Trafalgar Square. Packing up more than an hour and a half earlier than it usually does for a typical Friday Night, the pub offers only table service now. Few customers attempting to order from the old-style bar are directed to numbered tables and a man in a Perspex visor hurriedly cleans tables with disinfectant every time a customer departs.
This subdued atmosphere in the city’s pubs is also taking a toll on livelihoods of people like Robert, a 35-year old rickshaw driver who said the last few months have been tough for him. He waits next to a casino in London’s West End to ferry passengers to the train station or a supermarket for their next drink on a Friday night and says he has to do what he can to survive.
“Last night after 10:30 everyone was gone,” said Robert who declined to give his full name.
In the past decade alone, the number of pubs in the U.K. has decreased every year for a current total of 47,600, down from more than 60,000. The U.K.’s leading pub companies, which include Fuller, Smith & Turner Plc, JD Wetherspoon Plc and Young & Co’s Brewery Plc, have seen their market values collapse since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Wetherspoon, whose founder Tim Martin described the government’s curfew as a public-relations stunt, said last month that it expects to operate at a loss for the financial year that ended on July 26. The sector, which until recently employed almost 500,000 people, is also struggling to retain the European workers on whom it depends following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
Earlier this year, the world’s largest brewers stepped in to offset the worst of the impact of lockdowns—Budweiser maker Anheuser-Busch InBev SA, Heineken NV and Carlsberg A/S have all created initiatives such as Love My Local and Save Pub Life, which helped convert pubs into takeout businesses and encouraged patrons to buy vouchers they could redeem for pints when they reopened.
But support from the beermakers, who have themselves been battered by the pandemic into collectively reporting their worst financial performance in recent memory, hasn’t been enough to dissipate the specter of ruin for the pub industry. It’s a threat the latest government measures are sure to accelerate.
Shutting at 10 p.m. “looks set to cost us several million pounds per week on top of already reduced customer numbers in our pubs to maintain social distancing,” said Nick Mackenzie, chief executive officer of Greene King, one of the largest U.K. pub chains.
The earlier closing time also signals a stark reversal from the previous Eat Out to Help Out initiative, in which the government attempted to coax millions of people back into drinking and eating establishments by subsidizing half of their bills through August.
“What’s an hour, in the grand scheme of things?” Paul Skennerton, a 30-year-old marketing professional, said over pints at the Sun in the Sands pub in southeast London. “It seems an entirely token decision.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.