Pub staff return to social distancing ‘nightmare’

This investigative article was the most-read piece on Bristol24/7’s website in July 2020. Republished, with permission, from the original.

Many chose to remain at home this weekend as the pubs reopened, but lots of bar staff had no choice but to return to work on a day many have dubbed “super Saturday”.

Bristol24/7 spoke to three members of staff at The Berkeley and The Commercial Rooms, two Wetherspoon pubs in Bristol.

The staff rely on extra income by working in the pubs. Like many students, they rely on this income as their maintenance loan is not enough to cover rent and living expenses.

James*, who works at The Berkeley, said that social distancing “became impossible to enforce” at some points during the day.

“Even our pub manager was saying that once it got to 11pm, things became very tough to enforce,” he said. “So we’re thinking about maybe closing earlier.”

He added that trying to social distance behind the bar was “a nightmare”.

Social distancing was ‘a nightmare’ in the Berkeley. Photo: Bristol24/7

A number of new rules are in place at Wetherspoons that customers must follow: Groups are limited to six people and shouting is banned, as it has been shown it can spread the virus further.

“Somebody dropped a glass, a group went ‘waaay’, and then they got kicked out,” said James.

Annabel*, who also works at The Berkeley, said that she “hadn’t been in a retail shop for four months” before returning to work.

At the Commercial Rooms, Lloyd* shared a similar sentiment: “I haven’t seen anyone for the whole of lockdown, apart from maybe my sister.

“My girlfriend’s a high-risk person because she has asthma, so I’d rather not contract it from someone that’s asymptomatic and then bring it back here (home). It could turn out really bad for her.”

The Commerical Rooms is located near St Nick’s Market. Photo: Bristol24/7

To add to health worries, the three staff members said that social distancing while working is often difficult.

“Social distancing behind the bar seemed almost impossible,” James said. “There’s not even a one metre space really.”

“When someone was walking past us, we’d turn around and face our backs to them,” added Annabel.

The level of training differed between pubs, with Lloyd, who works at the Commercial Rooms, reporting that he had only been given a 15-minute video to prepare for the new rules.

“We weren’t really shown how to wear the face masks properly,” adds James, who had been unknowingly wearing his mask inside out.

Despite worries about the potential health risks, employees often felt no choice but to work to avoid losing income.

Staff say they feel they have no option but to go to work. Photo: Martin Booth

“Now that we’ll change to flexi-furlough, we’re going to have to work to keep on getting those furlough payments,” James explained. “The other options, for students, are kind of non-existent.

“I think there’s a big class of students now having to pool night shifts and unsociable hours in the hospitality industry, and it’s run pretty much entirely on those people who are just having to work in order to scrape by and pay rent, and I don’t really like that existence.”

*All names changed to protect anonymity.

Main photo: Martin Booth