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Heart of the community: England’s pubs reopen after painful pandemic year

LONDON — As England’s pubs open their doors for the first time in months on Monday, landlady Vanda Pera hopes it marks the end of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) lockdowns that put her village pub under strain and drove hundreds more like it out of business.

Ms. Pera, who runs The Crown Inn in Capel in southern England, has held online quiz nights, delivered meals to residents, and even given away unsold beer over the last year. Now, she is eager to get back behind the bar.

“I’ve got so many events booked and lined up to … let everybody know that we’ve survived and say ‘let’s just carry on’,” Ms. Pera told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“People are learning that it’s not just about drinking—it’s about just coming out and being in a different space that’s safe and nice,” she said by phone.

A British institution, pubs are traditionally at the heart of community life—from crowded city drinking holes where workers flock after the office to rural meeting places that are often the only place for villagers to mingle.

But the impact of COVID-19 restrictions was the death knell for some in an industry already struggling under pressures that see hundreds of pubs disappear each year.

About 2,000 pubs closed for good during the pandemic, estimated the British Beer and Pub Association in March, with experts and publicans saying they fear more will be shuttered.

Landlords faced repeated lockdowns that forced them to close, lost money on spoiled food and drink due to fast-changing rules, and grappled with a brief requirement for customers to order a “substantial meal” with their drinks.

For now, they can only open outdoor spaces, meaning many smaller, mainly city pubs without gardens or big terraces are still unable to resume trade.

Indoor socializing is expected to resume in May under plans to steadily ease curbs, but pubs are likely to remain subject to social distancing rules for some weeks and the government is mulling vaccine passports for the hospitality sector.

The full extent of pandemic-linked pub closures will only become clear over the coming months, said Nik Antona, national chairman of The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), who fears restrictions on pubs have created a sense that they are unsafe.

“The damage is already done,” he said. “We’re potentially going to see more pubs go because they were holding out for later in the year for when everything is lifted, but then the customers just don’t come.”

But the loss of so many pubs and tight restrictions on socializing during the pandemic have underscored their role as community hubs.

“It’s had a massive impact,” said Mr. Antona. “We had heard of people just not seeing each other for weeks on end.”

People who have a “local” they visit regularly tend to feel more socially engaged and contented, and are more likely to trust other members of their community, according to a 2016 study by University of Oxford researchers with CAMRA.

Pubs are used as meeting spaces by organizations from book groups and elderly social clubs to meetings for parent-teacher associations, support groups, and even local councils, said Mr. Antona.

In rural areas like Capel, they are often one of the few places that are regularly open.

“The pandemic has reinforced the importance and value of pubs … with many publicans being the ones to provide vital services, resources and support to local people,” said John Longden, chief executive of not-for-profit Pub is The Hub.

Vivienne Kay, 80, who regularly met a friend to walk their dogs and collect takeaway lunches from The Crown Inn said the outings were a bright spot during lockdown.

“Over the last year we haven’t had much contact with anybody and it’s just been an absolute lifesaver,” she said.

The pandemic could spur landlords to expand their offerings, from launching projects tackling loneliness to running community shops or amenities like allotment gardens and libraries.

“To survive and thrive pubs need to be so much more than places to socialize and eat and drink,” said Mr. Longden, whose organization offers advice on launching extra services.

Community ownership schemes in which local groups buy and run their local could provide a way forward for struggling pubs, said Michele Bianchi, a researcher at Glasgow Caledonian University in a recent article.

Caron Hall helped organize a community buyout of her local—The Shrewsbury Arms in the Midlands village of Kingstone—in 2019 after the previous owners announced plans to sell it for development as housing.

“If we were to lose the pub there’s no heart to the village any more, there’s nowhere for people to get together,” she said ahead of Monday’s reopening.

At The Crown Inn, Ms. Pera said she looked forward to welcoming back villagers who had connected with each other through the pub’s online activities under lockdown—forming friendships across age barriers.

“They would never usually be together in the bar—but they will be now when we come back to being together,” she said. — Sonia Elks/Thomson Reuters Foundation

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