Pubs & COVID: Will the places we drink ever be safe?

Post-lockdown study found staff not wearing PPE, washroom crowds and intoxicated customers shouting and embracing.

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read February 16, 2021
bartender with mask on pouring drinks

Alcohol may make it difficult for bar owners to maintain COVID prevention strategies. GETTY

COVID-19 precautions do not pair well with a night at the pub, according to a sobering new study that casts doubt on the ability of bars to keep their clientele safe from the virus.

The study, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, is the first of its kind to analyze the effectiveness of a wide range of precautions governing drinking establishments in post-lockdown Scotland. To ascertain the effectiveness of the guidelines introduced last summer, researchers conducted 29 observations at licensed establishments while posing as customers.

“Businesses expressed an intention to work within the guidance, but there were commercial and practical challenges to making this a reality,” said Niamh Fitzgerald, research lead and director of the University of Stirling’s Institute for Social Marketing and Health in Scotland. “Upon re-opening, substantial efforts to change the layout of bars were observed and appeared to be working well in many premises, but problems were common including staff not wearing personal protective equipment or with the management of toilets, queues and other ‘pinch points.’

“We also observed several incidents of greater concern — including customers shouting, embracing or repeatedly interacting closely with several households and staff — which were rarely addressed by staff.”

After the UK emerged from a national lockdown on March 20, licensed establishments were allowed to reopen indoor areas as of July 15, provided rules were implemented to decrease the risk of COVID transmission. These included keeping one metre of physical distance between everyone inside the pub, requiring masks to be worn by staff, keeping customers seated, improving ventilation and adding appropriate signage. Collecting customer information for contact tracing was added to the list after an August outbreak in Aberdeen was tied to a pub in the port city. Additional measures were also added to improve guidance on limiting queuing and improving table service to keep customers from moving around.

Although businesses were willing to work within the new rules, interviews with ownership laid bare the commercial and financial challenges of complying as well as the risk the guidelines posed to consumer experience. There was particular concern that some customers would not respond well to the new measures — a factor further complicated by the flow of alcohol.

“We concluded that, despite the efforts of bar operators and guidance from government, potentially significant risks of COVID-19 transmission persisted in at least a substantial minority of observed bars, especially when customers were intoxicated,” Fitzgerald said. “Closures of premises can eliminate these risks, but also cause significant hardship for business owners and staff.”

Compliance was also an issue, with some venues not collecting customer info for contact tracing even after the practice was made mandatory by the government. The use of personal protective equipment was also a concern in a minority of pubs, with some staff declining altogether and others wearing masks improperly or removing them to speak to customers.

The flow of traffic presented further problems, with bottlenecks experienced in almost all venues around washrooms, hallways and doorways. Congregating customers were rarely broken up and fewer than half of the pubs had a system in place to limit washroom capacity.

The study points out the Scottish Government did not provide details to pubs on exactly how they should safely handle customers who flout the rules or are unruly enough to warrant removal. “Overall, our findings suggest grounds for uncertainty about the extent to which new rules can be consistently and effectively implemented in a sector where interaction between tables, households and strangers is the norm and alcohol is routinely consumed,” Fitzgerald said.

“Blanket closures, curfews or alcohol sales bans are more likely to be deemed necessary to control virus spread, if such risks cannot be acceptably, quickly and cost-effectively reduced through support and/or sanctions for premises operators.”

Dave Yasvinski is a writer with

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