Green light given to reopen St Albans pubs - but is it viable?

L-R: Mandy McNeil, BID co-chair, Dylans and The Boot landlord Sean Hughes, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks la

L-R: Mandy McNeil, BID co-chair, Dylans and The Boot landlord Sean Hughes, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks landlord Christo Tofalli, MP Daisy Cooper and White Lion pub events manager Alicia Nelson. Picture: Loudbird PR - Credit: Archant

Pubs in St Albans, alongside those across the UK, face unique challenges amid the coronavirus – including that many believe reopening come July 4 will not be viable.

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks currently has a market stall outside the pub. Picture: Becky Alexander

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks currently has a market stall outside the pub. Picture: Becky Alexander - Credit: Archant

With social distancing measures in place, many pubs will see significantly fewer customers through the door, meaning less profit.

Although an announcement earlier this week will see social distancing decrease from two metres to one+ metres, this may still impact the pub industry.

Owner of Ye Olde Fighting Cocks – the oldest pub in the UK – Christo Tofalli said: “With social distancing it won’t work – I don’t know how people can social distance in a pub, and it will cost us a certain amount to open the doors, but we won’t take in anywhere near the cost of opening, and we won’t be able to afford to open.

“I am anxious about reopening. I am concerned for my staff’s health – and I am not prepared to start nailing perspex into centuries old timber – I would need planning permission anyway – just so that I can reopen.”

The Boot in St Albans. Picture: Anne Suslak

The Boot in St Albans. Picture: Anne Suslak - Credit: Archant

Sean Hughes, owner of The Boot, Dylans and The Plough at Sleapshyde and co-chair of St Albans Independent Hospitality and Retail Association told the Herts Ad: “Most pubs in St Albans probably won’t be reopening on July 4.

“We are not going to be ready and we haven’t had the official guidance from the government, or sorted out our furloughed staff. We will open when we’re ready.

“The situation hasn’t been the best, but everyone is in the same boat. People should remember that pubs are going to be very different when they reopen, people will need to have a bit of patience and will need to book before you turn up.

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“I think owners are worried about people turning up and expecting to just go in on July 4.”

St Albans MP Daisy Cooper has been lobbying for more support for the pub industry, and met with a number of landlords last week – via Zoom – in the city to discuss their concerns.

Daisy Cooper told the Herts Ad: “Local pubs have been struggling from the broken business rates system for the last few years and for many in hospitality the COVID pandemic has made a bad situation much much worse.

“Pubs face a unique combination of challenges in re-opening – some in a higher business rates bracket won’t have qualified for any government support at all, and others are battling with their big PubCo landlords about rent reductions and lease reviews.

“Some of our oldest pubs face the challenge of installing social distancing measures without damaging the centuries old fabric of their building, and others that rely on crowds enjoying live music simply won’t be able to open on the same terms.

“Here in St Albans and around the country, our pubs are an important part of our social fabric and cultural history and since I was elected I’ve been fighting to get a fair deal for them. Following an online meeting with local landlords earlier this week, I’ll be asking the government to respond to their concerns with a tailored package of support and much clearer guidance so that our pubs can continue to thrive.”

Plans for an ‘Inside Out St Albans’, which would see businesses, restaurants and bars utilise outdoor space in the city centre, brings hope for some.

The scheme is being promoted by St Albans Business Improvement District, and has been launched via ‘community hubs’ as a test run while licensing laws are looked into.

Chairman for South Herts CAMRA – Campaign for Real Ale – Iain Loe said: “We are fully supportive of the Inside Out St Albans initiative to get the city’s businesses safely re-opened and we hope it will mean that we can enjoy a pint of real ale from one of our local brewers courtesy of our wonderful historic hostelries.

“We are unable to hold our normal Beer and Cider Festival this year at the Alban Arena at the end of September, but instead we are planning to promote a celebration of real ale and cider at our city’s pubs.

“We are supporting St Albans BID and the district council plans to create the temporary pedestrianisation of the city centre to enable business, including pubs, to trade outside whilst retaining safe social measures.

“We look forward to enjoying a late summer celebration of the nation’s favourite alcoholic drink even if we are unable, this year, to do so at the Arena, but rather in a city-wide festive celebration.”