Ten in the morning on the first day of pubs reopening since lockdown and in Sheffield’s most central Wetherspoon pub Connor Bowling and his two mates are already three pints deep, Full English full and considering ordering a round of Jagermeisters.
“It’s early, but why not?” the 23-year-old gas engineer says. “It’s been a long three months.”
Thus began the much-anticipated day on which, to paraphrase the prime minister, English people regained their ancient unalienable right to go out and drink. Fourth July: when the country’s pubs and bars reopened for the first time following 15 weeks and one day of coronavirus lockdown; when the government told us: get to the boozer – the economy needs you.
What had Bowling and his pals got planned in order to do their duty? “No plans,” he said, sat in The Sheffield Water Works Company. “Other than it getting messy.”
Twelve hours later, with the night now in full swing, it seemed that, while plenty had similar aspirations, the weekend would not, in fact, be the booze-apocalypse many had feared.
Sheffield was Saturday night busy – but only just. Roughly half of all pubs were shut – a figure in line with national reports – and few of those open had queues outside, despite social distancing rules meaning they were only able to cater for about 70 per cent normal capacity. Certainly, the lines did not compare to those which formed outside reopened barbers and hair salons in the morning and afternoon.
“I wonder what that says about people?” pondered 19-year-old Ria Hinchliffe in The Wick At Both Ends pub. “I’m having mine done on Tuesday.”
A&E figures and arrest numbers will come in due course. But on the streets and in the bars of this South Yorkshire city, this did not feel like the mass release of energy many had predicted. If social distancing wasn’t exactly being observed everywhere, nor perhaps was it being smashed to quite the extent one might expect following a 106 day shut down. Similar scenes were experienced in towns and cities across England, including Manchester and Newcastle, reports suggested.
“People have been behaving really well, actually,” said Amy Locke, a bar manager at the city’s Forum bar. “Once you’re at a table, you’re not supposed to get up and mix with other people and we’ve had to ask a few people to stop doing that. I’ve felt a bit like a school teacher telling people to sit down but I think people understand why.”
Among the changes from a pre-Covid world were hand-sanitiser on doors, Perspex screens on counters, more table service and music turned right down. Among the similarities were the odd lad still having an indiscrete wee in the odd doorway.
“It’s actually quite civilised, isn’t it?” said Idony Lee – talking about the table service not the doorway misuse. “It reminds me of how people drink on the continent.”
A moment’s thought. “Although I don’t know if it will still be like that at 2am,” the 22-year-old call centre worker added.
Few punters appeared worried about the possible health implications of being out amid a pandemic which is still claiming lives – including 67 on Friday – and, pertinently perhaps, in a city which is in the top 10 in England for current infection rates.
On Thursday, landlords here were left apoplectic after the council dropped a tweet telling people that coronavirus would be “waiting for you” iin pubs. “Do you know who is happiest [bars are opening]?” the now-deleted post asked. “Coronavirus. The virus loves crowded places and close contact.”
Yet such concerns were clearly not on the minds of those out.
“Got my mask and I’m not planning on hugging strangers – I feel safe enough,” said Chris Marshall, 61, sat supping real ale in The Banker’s Draft pub earlier in the day. “It was driving me mad being cooped up at home. Talking to your friends on the phone isn’t the same, is it? I agreed [with lockdown] but I was ready to be out again.”
His friend, Mick Lather, a retired hospital porter, had a similar view, although he put it rather more bluntly. “I could die tomorrow, lad,” the 71-year-old said. “And so could you. I’d rather know I’d enjoyed myself than stayed sat at home afraid of a virus.”
She may have been 52 years younger but 19-year-old project coordinator Chloe Pownall, drinking in The Wick At Both Ends, felt something similar.
“What are we going to do?” she asked. “Just stay in forever? Especially because I’m quite young, so I just think it’s worth the risk.”
She was on a pint of Carling. How did it taste from the tap? “So, so good,” she said. “People look down at you for being a girl drinking pints. Couldn’t care less.”
In London, earlier in the day, there had been a similar situation.
John, a 66-year-old who lives in Putney and was enjoying a pint with a newspaper in the JJ Moon pub in Tooting Broadway, said: “This tastes a lot better out of a glass than it does out of a tin, that I can tell you.”
While he said that the return to pubs pales in comparison with seeing his grandchildren after three months of shielding, he agreed that the renewed sense of community would offer a boost after the hardships of lockdown.
“At the moment, where this pub’s concerned, it seems to be working out fine, but you can’t judge one pub by all pubs,” he said. “The way it is in here now, it’s quite modern. It’s not too hectic either. I’m quite happy with it.”
Of whether pre-booking systems could affect the spontaneity of going for a drink, he added: “Possibly, it all depends how busy it is. Saturday night, a lot of people, in the event of a football match where it’s screened in certain pubs, that could take its toll. You’ll probably have a line-up about half a mile down the road waiting to get in to see the match.”