With the worst of the pandemic supposedly over, much of the UK is trying to return to some form of normality. Social distancing, face coverings and hand sanitiser are very much necessary, but we can finally welcome the return of shopping, eating out and seeing friends inside our own homes. Whilst we’ve all had our patience tested by the unforeseen pausing of this normality, its return brings a muddle of relief and uncertainty. The virus hasn’t gone away and the vulnerable in society are still at risk.
This is something I feel acutely aware of when returning to my job as a waitress and barmaid. It has never been the most rewarding or stimulating of jobs, but it hasn’t ever felt particularly dangerous before now. Clearing cutlery and glasses which I know have been in contact with customers’ mouths is an intimacy which risks my health and, more importantly, the vulnerable people around me.
Some of these vulnerable people are in my own extended family, whom I deeply missed during lockdown. By the time I saw my grandparents it had been six months since my last visit, making it the longest I had ever gone without hearing about the drama of the retirement village and the progress of the vegetable patch. When I finally did see them again, I was coming straight in from my first shift back at the pub and I couldn’t help but feel the irony of the fact that now I was allowed to see them. I was a far bigger risk then than I had been during the whole of lockdown. I wanted a hug from my grandma more than anything in the world, but my job means that I would risk her life by doing that.
Perhaps it would be safer if my job looked anything like the pictures on the news, where staff wear visors, masks and gloves and have strict social distancing measures in place. I have some hand gel and we no longer offer bar service, but other than that, my job looks exactly the same as it did previously for me as a staff member. I may anti-bac everything the customers will touch but I have no personal protection whatsoever. It raises questions for me about company priorities: the pub would have to close whether it was a staff member or customer who got sick, and when I walk out of the door at the end of the shift, I become a part of the same general public that my customers are a part of. If I get ill, it will have exactly the same effect as if one of my customers did.
On the plus side, the structure of having a job after so much empty time during lockdown feels wonderful. Eight hours wiping tables feels so much better now than it did in March. Like many over recent months, I learnt how to manage my productivity and mental health through the challenges of long days and indefinite periods of restrictions, but – also like many – I’m impossibly glad that at least partial normality has returned. I’m also incredibly fortunate to have a job in the current economic climate and I don’t want to take my blessings for granted; the pay packet at the end of the week is certainly worth appreciating.
Balance seems to be becoming a keyword post-lockdown. We are balancing risks with economic need, visiting much-missed family and friends with social distancing, and the need for normality with the need for caution. Pubs are no exception to this precarious balance. Plenty of customers walk in and sit down beside regulars as if there was no pandemic, and plenty walk in wanting reassurance that everything is sanitised before they even sit down. In returning to the job, I accept this balance; I accept that I am risking the health of those I come into contact with, but that it is a necessary risk which I will minimise through hand-washing, social distancing and wearing a mask in public places.
It is certainly a strange time to be working in a sector that is under as much duress as hospitality. Staff are nervous about their financial situations: some have just started after losing employment during lockdown. If something goes wrong and Covid-19 is found to have entered the pub, we will close immediately and I won’t earn a penny until it opens up again. I’m fortunate enough to have the support of my family in this worst-case scenario, but not everybody is. Ultimately, the pressure to stay safe is immense, both from the business’ perspective who don’t want to close, and from a personal perspective: I can’t risk making my grandparents unwell. The ‘new normal’ is uncomfortable and risk-exposing, but it is also here to stay.