There were no fireworks to commemorate July 4 in the United Kingdom, but it was nonetheless a day of great national significance. After weeks of gradually easing the country’s lockdown restrictions, England largely threw open its doors on Saturday. Pubs, restaurants, hair salons, amusement parks, hotels, museums, and other venues are allowed to welcome visitors once again, marking the end of what Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the country’s “long national hibernation.”
Given the central role that pubs play in British life, their reopening has been viewed as a key marker of the country’s return to normalcy amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But the idea of throngs of revelers gathering together for a celebratory pint has also raised fears that the price of a drink may be a spike in coronavirus infections.
Indeed, after being closed since March 23, the government’s decision to reopen the country’s hospitality industry on a Saturday seemed designed to emphasize sales. Some pub owners said they felt obliged to open, despite health fears.
“There’s a lot of pressure on landlords to open, regardless of whether or not they think it’s the right thing to do because, in customers’ minds, we’re supposed to,” Damon Horrill, who runs a small network of pubs in Cheshire, told HuffPost U.K. “The research we did leading up to opening indicated that if we didn’t open we would be perceived as going against the guidance and restricting customers’ liberties, as opposed to doing something safe.”
Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour party, criticized the government’s messaging as being “all over the place.”
“You have had some government messaging saying go out and have a drink, other messaging saying be responsible, be cautious — the messaging, I think, has been very poor over the last few weeks,” Starmer said in a radio interview.
The new government guidance applies only to England. Pubs and restaurants in Northern Ireland reopened on Friday, while those in Scotland will be allowed to start serving patrons indoors on July 15. In Wales, pubs can begin serving customers outdoors on July 13, but no date has yet been set for resuming indoor service.
Omfg look at Soho now. 🤯 pic.twitter.com/hR1VBYyFfi
— RafLee #blacklivesmatter (@RafLee84) July 4, 2020
Images of crowds congregating in nightlife hotspots like London’s Soho neighborhood on Saturday night seemed to confirm some fears.
Crowds quickly “got out of control” and within hours “it was a proper street party with people dancing and drinking,” Rafal Liszewski, a manager at a store in the area, told the PA news agency. “Barely anyone was wearing masks and nobody respected social distancing. … To be honest with that many people on one street it was physically impossible.”
John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation, said it was “crystal clear” that drunk people are unable to properly socially distance.
Apter, who was on duty in Southampton, said he dealt with “naked men, happy drunks, angry drunks, fights and more angry drunks.”
“It was a busy night but the shift managed to cope,” he added.
Overall, however, “Super Saturday” did not appear to lead to widespread disorder.
Many establishments chose to remain closed on Saturday, and those that did open offered punters a very different pub experience, with staff decked out in gloves and face masks, plastic screens installed above bars and tables spaced at least one meter apart.
Some pubs required patrons to book tables in advance and order drinks via a smartphone app, in order to control crowds and reduce face-to-face contact with staff.
“It was different but it was great to be back,” Tommy Byron, the owner of The Cloth Market in Newcastle, told The Chronicle. “Everyone’s temperature was checked on entry and all food and drink was ordered via an app and table service was in operation.”
“It was nice for some people because they could just sit down for three hours and not have to move.”
The Metropolitan Police said there were “no significant issues” across London on Saturday.
“The majority of the public complied with social distancing guidelines and remained vigilant,” said Commander Bas Javid. “While some areas were notably busy such as Soho and Portobello Road, we are pleased there were no significant issues or incidents in the capital.”
Health secretary Matt Hancock said most people were abiding by social distancing measures.
“From what I’ve seen, although there’s some pictures to the contrary, very, very largely people have acted responsibly,” Hancock said in an interview with Sky on Sunday.
“So overall I’m pleased with what happened yesterday. It was really good to see people out and about and largely, very largely, social distancing.”
With reporting from HuffPost U.K.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.