The Countryside Alliance has been surveying its extensive network of rural pubs, asking owners and landlords how they are coping during lock down and what, if any, their plans are for reopening in the coming weeks.
Hopes are pinned on being allowed to safely reopen on July 4th, but many landlords and pub owners have expressed concern at having to pick up information solely from the news.
The feedback so far, reveals some landlords have alluded to worsened mental health triggered by the uncertainty, with many fearing a sudden announcement signalling a reopen, could catch them off guard and plunge them into further financial difficulty.
Just over half of those rural pubs polled from our network, have adapted to guidance and continue operating either partially or fully as local community shops, while offering take away services.
It is worth noting that in very rural areas, pubs can often be one of- if not the only hub- for miles around, so not adapting to serve as a shop, could have proved very difficult for those seeking basic goods without access to transport.
There was virtually universal praise for the government’s business support grant, which many claimed stopped them going under in the earlier period of crisis.
Some 60% of those surveyed are planning for an early July opening, but many fear the current 2m social distanced guidance, could make longer term trade after the initial rush difficult, as many rural pubs are 18th century builds if not much older. They are naturally narrower and smaller on the inside, so many are pinning hopes on being able to utilise their beer gardens, citing plans to install pop up gazebos and open marquees, so as to ensure trade is not solely weather dependant.
Staggering figures from the British Beer and Pub Association claim pubs enforcing social distancing at 2 metres will mean only 12,500 of England’s pubs could re-open. Reducing to 1 metre means 75% could reopen.
Others publicans detail how they are constructing strict one way traffic systems, sanitary stations and perspex screens at the bar to protect staff. Of those not opening, landlords cite size and social distancing as their main concern. Also taking part in the survey were Wales based pub owners, who make clear they have no idea where they currently stand and therefore are not making any plans to open.
Other pubs plan on operating a table service for food and drink, so as to limit people entering the indoor pub space.
Generally, most are not having trouble restocking with many using local suppliers and cash and carries but there are some fears from those facing problems, that bigger pub chains are taking up much of the demand.
Of those planning on reopening, many are expecting a surge initially, particularly in the South West where many depend of increased custom over the Summer months from tourism.The Countryside Alliance has been urging local authorities, particuarly those in Devon, as well as Cornwall's unitary authority, to drop anti-visitor rhetoric at this crucial time.
Commenting on the findings of the survey, Sarah Lee of the Countryside Alliance said: “ Pubs form part of the backbone of many rural communities and have a key role in the fight against social isolation and loneliness. It’s clear many in the pub trade need to know whether they going to be able to safely resume trade by the 4th July, but at the moment they are in limbo and struggling to ascertain where to seek guidance or the correct information. A huge amount of time and effort needs to be put in to being ready and with two weeks to go, they currently don’t know where they stand.”
The Countryside Alliance will be monitoring developments in relation to guidance for the hospitality sector closely, as reports in the media suggest that the 2 metre distancing currently required, may be relaxed.
We have already written an open letter to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, about the importance of tourism to the rural economy, and why the Government must champion rural tourism and start to reopen parts of the countryside that are safe to do so.
Rural tourism in England contributes over £13 billion per year to the economy, and VisitBritain predicts the £80 billion domestic tourism industry, spanning holidays and day visits, will suffer a £22 billion drop this year. Tourism makes a significant contribution to the rural economy, supporting village shops and services, jobs and businesses, and it is crucial to ensuring the long-term sustainability of our countryside. That rural economy has been devastated by the impact of COVID-19, making it even more important that tourism in the countryside resumes as soon as it is safe for it to do so.
Writing for the Telegraph our President, Baroness Mallalieu, discussed why pubs, as well as campsites & cottages, cafes as and all national park car parks should reopen.