For many pubs, the cost of staying shut outweighs the risk of reopening

The blackboard outside the Blue Bell, before it was quarantined and closed, left drinkers in no doubt as to what was being served, and what was not.

John Pybus, owner of the Blue Bell, York's smallest pub. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe

No TV, no music, no games machines, it read. And no swearing.

Its landlord, John Pybus, has added a few more caveats since then. But as the pub is for the moment remaining closed, he has yet to chalk them up.

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Tucked away on Fossgate next to a vintage dress shop, the Blue Bell prides itself on being the smallest pub in York. Red brick outside, open fire and Edwardian oak within, it is the very essence of a traditional English tavern.

Paul Crossman at The Swan on Bishopthorpe Road in York.

Because of the limited accommodation, Mr Pybus used to discourage groups of drinkers. But in the “new normal” of socially distanced conviviality it is singletons that are his bête noire.

There is space for 65 people inside, including the staff. But when they are kept 1m apart the number of customers is reduced to 12, and only then if they come in pairs.

“We have specific places in the pub where you can stand or sit,” says Mr Pybus. “You’re not allowed to move from those places and if you’re single you take up a whole place. If you’re a couple we can get you both in.

“So under social distancing, you’re looking at having a maximum of about 12 people inside, and that’s assuming 10 of those people are five couples.”

Vicky and Adrian Pettitt of The Yorkshire Ales in Snaith

For that reason, it makes more economic sense to remain closed than to reopen today, he says.

“Having no turnover is a slow bleed on the finances, which obviously won’t last forever.

“But if we reopen with only 15 per cent of the turnover and double or triple the staffing costs because of table service and having to wipe things down, it would turn into something much worse and it would be a matter of weeks before we were bankrupt.

“As it is, we’ve probably got another couple of months left in us.”

He hopes to be able to resume service in some form before July is out.

“We’ve applied to the council for permission to serve outside on the pavement and we’re hoping they will throw us a bone,” he says. “We’ve yet to hear back.”

He is not the only publican in the region to have concluded that his premises are too small to open under the present guidelines.

Down the road, Paul Crossman, who runs The Slip and The Swan, 100 yards from each other, and the Volunteer Arms a mile away, has decided to keep all three closed for the time being, arguing that it is riskier to take staff off furlough and spend thousands of pounds on restocking each cellar.

“They are all quite small and there is obviously a risk in reopening if it’s not going to be viable. If there were to be a second wave we’d lose all the new stock,” he says.

“We rely on being packed on a Friday and Saturday night, full of people being close together and enjoying the community atmosphere that you get in pubs like these. If we can’t be busy like that then we’re going to struggle.”

He has told his regulars “not to expect anything before August” and that when the doors do reopen, the familiar pub experience will have changed – perhaps beyond recognition.

“The community role that pubs fulfil is going to be critical in getting people back together,” he says. “But at the moment there’s a real worry that people will come in once or twice, then realise that it’s not really what it used to be and stop coming.”

The changes will happen behind the bar as well as in front of it, he warns.

“We used to have eight local cask ales in each of the bars all the time. In the future that’s just not going to be possible – because with fewer customers we simply wouldn’t get through it all and it would go off.”

The reduced demand, coupled with a shorter-than-expected notice of intent from the Government, is having a knock-on effect for the region’s independent brewers, he adds.

“The guidance came too late for all of us. Big businesses may have had sight of if but we only saw it at the same time as the public, and we then had 10 or 11 days before supposedly implementing it this weekend.

“Even now the brewers don’t know which of their customers are going to be selling. It’s a chicken and egg situation.”

John Lewis, who runs the Treboom brewery at Shipton by Beningbrough in North Yorkshire, agrees that it was “annoying not to have had a heads-up” about when the regulations would change.

“They promised us three weeks and they gave us 10 days,” he says.

“People are buying a lot of bottled beer at the moment so we’ve been brewing once week to accommodate that market, but pubs are our bread and butter and without them we can’t survive.”

He has resumed pub deliveries this week but says landlords are as much in the dark as everyone else as to how much beer they will need.

“Some say they can’t police their customers in the way that’s required. And every landlord I’ve spoken to has said they don’t know if people are going to turn up.”

Many of his regular customers – from Leeds in the west to Hull in the east and Darlington in the north – have told him they will now be buying only occasionally.

Russell Bisset, founder and managing director of the independent Northern Monk brewery in Leeds, says the shutdown in March took with it 60 per cent of his business overnight.

But people remained thirsty, and since then his online business has increased 10-fold. “We’ve been able to keep the lights on,” he says.

Northern Monk also has its own pub – the Refectory in Holbeck, Leeds – which it will reopen a noon today with a list of rules longer than those on John Pybus’s blackboard. No standing, no crossing anyone on the stairwell and no more than six people to a group, are among the tenets of the new normality.

Jackie Rogers, who with her husband Tony runs the Half Moon brewery at Ellington, west of Market Weighton, says gauging the market is as imprecise as “sticking a finger in the air”.

She supplies around 350 pubs across the region – a customer base it has taken seven years to build up – and has kept the business afloat during the spring with local deliveries, but says she has no idea how much stock will be needed in the next few weeks.

“It takes three weeks to turn beer around. We started brewing a few weeks ago in anticipation of the industry starting up again, but we really don’t know how many will reopen. Maybe half, maybe less.

“A lot of people are leaving it for another week and some until August.”

No let-up in rent bills

Many of the small and independent pubs who open their doors today will do so out of desperation and despite their better judgement, some in the industry are suggesting – for while their income has disappeared, the rent bills from their landlords have not.

In some cases it is private property owners who need to be paid; in others one of the huge “pubcos” that own thousands of premises and lease them to tenants.

Either way, it means that many of those who resume trading will do so at a loss, says Mr Crossman, who is also chairman of the Campaign for Pubs, a pressure group which speaks for locals up and down the country.

“There are pubs out there that are desperate to open. They would rather not but they need to get the revenue,” he said.

“A great many pubs have been charged full rent while they’ve been closed, as I have at The Swan. People are getting absolutely beside themselves with worry about the sheer scale of debt that’s building up and which somehow has to be repaid from the terribly depressed trade coming their way.

“But all these publicans are really doing is reducing their debt. They’re crippled with rent arrears so they’re over a barrel – being forced to work effectively for nothing. And if only 10 per cent end up being profitable, then reopening will have hastened their failure.”

The risk is to the licensees, not to the landlords of their properties, Mr Crossman adds.

“If a local business fails, the pub company will simply get another tenant in. It’s called churn in the industry,” he says.

In the East Riding town of Snaith, where catastrophic flooding had preceded quarantine by only around a fortnight, at least three of the six locals will reopen this weekend. Among them is Yorkshire Ales, which Vicky and Adrian Pettitt run in an old manor house off the road to Goole.

They lease the building from a private owner, and have paid their rent in full throughout the quarantine.

“It’s her only income. That’s why we’ve kept paying,” says Mrs Pettitt.

“I don’t know if we will do enough business to turn a profit, but we’ve got to try. If we don’t start getting back to a new normal now, I don’t know when we will.”

Their pub will operate at only around a third of its usual capacity, with a telephone booking system in place and customers warned to turn up on time or risk not getting in.

The Pettits have ticked over through the spring by buying a canning machine and selling take-out versions of the cocktails for which they are locally known. “We decided that we needed to have some form of return on investment,” Mrs Pettitt says.

The British Institute of Innkeeping estimates that around one in 10 of its members will reopen this weekend but the “vast majority” do not expect to make a profit for months to come.

“As far as we are aware, very few pubs have nee physically paying rent during the closed period but they will be working towards how the rent will be paid back,” says the organisation’s spokesman, Molly Davis.

The British Beer and Pub Association, which represents pubcos as well as licensees, expects eight pubs in 10 to reopen today but for nearly all to trade at a loss.

“If 10 per cent are profitable, that will be a surprise to us,” says the organisation’s chief executive, Emma McClarkin, for whom, this weekend is “only the first step in a long road to recovery”.

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