I have seen the future and it is odd. This week I’ve been in England sampling what awaits us when the hospitality sector reopens in Scotland on Wednesday. Based on my experience, it is going to be strange, disconcerting and more than anything, sad.
Three days after Boris Johnson’s so-called Super Saturday I checked into a pub with rooms in a picture postcard English village. The staff couldn’t have been nicer. At a time in the summer when they’d normally be tiring of the tourism onslaught, they welcomed us like intrepid explorers arriving from a different planet. To reinforce that, their opening gambit was to reassure us that the atmosphere was safe for us to breathe. The reception desk had a list of recorded staff temperatures and our room had been fogged and then sealed with plastic strips so we knew no one else had entered. As we checked in, some locals arrived for a drink. All had their details recorded on the computer system in case any of us become ill in the coming days.
We dropped our bags in the cleanest room ever and then headed down to the bar for the first pint and meal out in nearly four months. The place was quiet. With music banned to discourage loud conversation, there was just the murmur of the few customers present discussing you know what.
Our waitress left the photocopied menus on an adjacent table and explained a few items were not available. Once bitten, twice shy, she said that was likely to be the case more frequently. When lockdown happened lots of stock went from the fridge to the bin. Worried about future restrictions, the chefs were cutting back on orders from suppliers to keep costs down.
Our food was fantastic but the whole experience just felt weird. The usual village pub chat had been replaced by endless earnest conversations about systems and requirements. A member of staff in a yellow T-shirt spent the entire evening just walking around empty tables, spraying and polishing. It felt like being part of a laboratory experiment, which I suppose we were. Only one thing was missing. Despite all the other requirements, no one wore a mask.
That wasn’t the case the next day when we visited a restaurant on the English seaside. Packed to the rafters this time last year, 12 months and one pandemic later it seemed quiet. A rope barrier stopped the non-existent crowd wandering in. We had our temperature checked and were then doused in hand santizer by masked staff in the way the Jenners perfume counter staff used to dish out Paco Rabanne.
Inside the place was full. Just Covid-19 full. Instead of the packed tables all vying for a view of the sea, social distancing had cut capacity by a third. Our waiter said the 18 front of house staff had been cut to just five. They were all doing their best but again it felt like we were all at a wake for someone we didn’t know.
On Wednesday the hospitality sector will reopen in Scotland with the same challenges. Hopefully Rishi Sunak’s latest measures will give the sector the boost it badly needs because right now going out feels like going through the motions. It’s hard not to remember how it was and just wish it was again.
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