The Gryphon spoke to Hyde Park venues and pub-goers on what the future of tighter local restrictions and the effect on the hospitality in the wake of a local spike
As the number of COVID-19 related deaths rise for the fourth consecutive week, speculation about pub closures in Northern cities has polluted timelines this week. But it looks as if the Nation are in for a collective de-ja-vu. In an address to the House of Common’s on Monday, Boris Johnson unveiled a new three-tiered plan to enforce further local lockdown measures, coming in from Yesterday. Luckily, Leeds’ pubs narrowly missed closures as the city is subjected to the second tier of local restrictions. A temporary sigh of relief from the hospitality industry can be heard, but what does this new normal mean long term? We speak to Hyde Park venues and residents on the future of pubbing in coronavirus times.
Liverpool was the first city to be placed on ‘very high alert.” The criteria for the highest tiered restriction would include a closure of all pubs and bars, gyms, leisure facilities, having a significant effect on the livelihood of pub and bar owners and staff.
Leeds City Council has already voiced their urgent concerns on behalf of the hospitality industry in a letter to Boris Johnson, which urged Westminster to scrap the 10pm curfew and warning of “severe impact” to the local economy. Manchester MP’s warned pub closures would inevitably “devastating impact on jobs, livelihoods and businesses,” just as pub chain Greene King are forced to cut 800 jobs from their UK franchise.   Hospitality businesses across the UK report financial losses and are struggling with the curfew, with a survey from the night-time Industries Association noting a 60% drop in revenue since the curfew started. 
In a bid of reassurance to offer financial support to businesses affected by the restrictions, Rishi Sunak announced last Friday the government are to pay two thirds of affected employee salary in an extension of the job support scheme to protect companies and workers forced to close. But Westminster’s neglect of the North in a London Centric approach to targeting the hospitality industry has received widespread backlash.
The government’s fixation with targeting the hospitality industry to control the spread of infection has been called unjustified. Data from Health England (PHE) actually shows that socialising inside people’s homes is currently the primary driver of infections, raising questions on whether closing venues would just direct pub-goers to continue socialising in their own homes. However, communities secretary Robert Jenrick told Radio 4’s Today programme that it is “commonsensical” that the longer people spend in pubs, the more likely they are to spread the virus. But William Wragg, the Conservative MP for Hazel Grove told the I newspaper “talk of closing pubs, restaurants and cafes is misplaced, given that very limited transmission of COVID seems to take place there.”
Although the economic ramifications of pub closures are expected to wreak havoc, and the curfew has already posed a threat, perhaps a less immediately pressing but equally important concern is the slow decline of pub culture.
Social spaces to reconcile and come together during challenging times are majorly overlooked. Ministers are warning restrictions and venue closures are resulting in a surge of illegal parties. The drought of cultural sites and the closing of the very spaces where people can socialise within a COVID-safe environment could potentially counteract the government’s aims to control the spread of infection.
Venues that we love and know in and around Hyde Park serve not only for employment to locals and students, but as spaces where society blends and socializes. We spoke to the pub landlords, venue owners and pub-goers from Brudenell Social Club, the Packhorse and Hyde Park Book Club in Leeds about the future of pub culture in lockdown, and what would happen if Leeds enters a top tier restriction.
We spoke to Jack Simpson, owner of Hyde Park Book Club. Asking about the future of Hyde Park Book Club in the result of a future tier-3 restriction, Jack said “It’s hard to say right now, but we’ve had lots of support as I say, so hopefully we can keep doing what we need to do to be ok. The whole time is difficult, but the team are amazing. We’ve had lots of support from the community, so we’ll just keep doing our best.”
Jack said the most pressing concern is the threat to employment, but also noted organisations like his provide jobs and a key space for culture.
Ex-teacher-turned landlord Pete Alessi, of the Pack Horse, spoke to us about the implications of shutting down pubs, running the business within current COVID restrictions and the erosion of artistic spaces in Leeds.
“The bigger picture here is that some establishments that are independently run, owners have taken big personal risks to fund the venues. They are the ones that don’t want a high street formed of corporate hegemony. They will face serious struggles if pubs had to close.”
Venues escaping closure still feel the effects of the curfew and reduction in customers.
Pete tells me his pub purposely doesn’t have TVs, to encourage customers to engage with each other.
“Because people haven’t been able to sit at the bar, the conversational aspect of pub life is in danger. How easy it is to talk to strangers. You can have a conversation but from the next table over.”
Local music education charity Cloth Cat work around current restrictions to run an open mic night at the Pack Horse.
Pete said “Independent places will feel financial pressure more than corporate, as local style pubs will feel the hit more. This is affecting the artistic music scene in Leeds as there is so little funding in that already. I’m taking a pay cut to do it because I think it would be a shame to lose somewhere music and community focused if different management took the place on.”
We asked pub owners whether Rishi Sunak’s extension of the Job Retention Scheme would offer substantial support in the case of a tier 3 lockdown.
“Unless council tax, utility companies also reduce rent and rates, that grant will simply only pay for the bills of the building.”
Pete then talked to me about where pub-goers will be forced to socialise, and how breaking down the student-local divide is a key driver in keeping pubs open.
“People will still socialise, but in an illegal way. Have it in a beer garden, there are dedicated members of staff in licenced bars that are trained to serve in a COVID-secure manner.”
I asked Jack from Hyde Park Book Club how the government could improve their approach. He thinks “we need a government committed to good communication and tracking and tracing. It’s a tricky situation, but we’d like to see more of that.”
Alex, a student at the University of Leeds, agrees with Pete, in that the losing access to somewhere like Brudenell Social Club would prevent the blend of students and local residents.
“For me, Brudenell over summer has been a great spot for community cohesion, as students and locals have been able to get along and chat and kind of, behave as if we are in the pandemic together. Normally these two groups never mix, and because of the outdoor seating the experience isn’t going to be the same anywhere.”
Main Image Credit: Ellie Hodgson