COVID-19 guidance may make British pubs more welcoming, but many still hesitate dropping by for a drink, says the Financial Times’ Henry Mance.
LONDON: Why does America always go wrong under teetotal presidents? Before Donald Trump, there was George W Bush. Before him, there was Jimmy Carter. And before Mr Carter, Herbert Hoover.
Although not a non-drinker on principle, Hoover energetically allied himself with Prohibition when it was already clear the policy had backfired as badly as the recent reopening of Arizona.
“What America needs now is a drink,” martini-mixing Franklin D Roosevelt is supposed to have said, when he repealed Prohibition in 1933.
Today America can’t have a drink, at least in a bar. It’s incredible: A country that banned alcohol for 13 years was unwilling to implement life-saving social distancing for 13 weeks. Texas, Florida, Colorado and parts of California have all reversed plans to reopen bars.
But in countries where Fox News is not the most watched cable channel, there is better news for drinking establishments.
England’s pubs reopened on Saturday (Jul 4), joining countries like France, Germany and Australia. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has gently asked people not to get “plastered”.
I was a bit sceptical of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s rush to open pubs before schools. But looking at the official guidance now, I am warming to it.
Loud music will not be allowed in pubs, to avoid customers spitting over each other in an effort to be heard. Neither will groups of more than 30 be permitted.
Queueing at the bar will be discouraged. The distance between tables is likely to be increased.
In a revolutionary step, customers will be encouraged to wash their hands after going to the toilet.
You know what, it might catch on. After watching their government trying to wash its hands of everything possible, the public may have grasped the basic technique.
Some people will complain that drinking is not like in the old days. Pubs are a great British tradition, but also an evolving one.
A letter-writer to the Economist once recalled how, in West Yorkshire circa 1970, he’d tried to buy some crisps to go with his bitter. The landlady replied: “This is a pub, not a bloody restaurant.”
These days you’re more likely to be told this isn’t a pub, it’s an alcohol-available brasserie, and would you like any fennel-cured olives?
When I worked in a pub, the landlord thought it was a point of principle that customers should be able to buy four drinks for £10 (US$13).
Even then they couldn’t, but they could legally smoke. Did we really hang out in cigarette-filled dives and just accept that our clothes were infested with the smell?
More recently, pubs have started serving non-alcoholic drinks without a grimace. Pub chain JD Wetherspoon, despite its image, is very good at recognising its customers aren’t all grumpy old men.
THE NEXT EVOLUTION OF PUBS
So bring on the next evolution of pubs, with gentle background music, nicely spaced tables, minimal queueing and probably £7 pints to make up the profit margins.
But don’t bring it on quite yet. Sixty per cent of Britons say they’d be uncomfortable going to bars and restaurants, as many as in May. I am one of them.
It’s partly that the government’s approach to coronavirus wobbles around like Richard Nixon on one of his delicate days.
It’s partly that going to the pub used to mean something. It was a release, a chance to catch up on events.
Opening the pubs now seems like dessert before main course. What Britain needs is something to talk about.
Of course, Nixon proves that alcohol doesn’t necessarily make for a good president. But at least one advantage of a leader who drinks is that there are times when you can ignore what he says.
America has withstood teetotal presidents and drunk ones. Now it must withstand a teetotal president acting like a drunk one. What the country needs now is a vaccine or, failing that, an election.