In a new, first-of-its-kind study, researchers are questioning whether pub operators can effectively and consistently prevent coronavirus disease (COVID-19) transmission after risks were found to increase in licensed premises last summer, according to a press release.

The research was conducted by the University of Stirling in May to August 2020 in a wide range of licensed premises that re-opened after a nationwide lockdown and were opening under detailed guidance from the government that were intended to reduce transmission risks.

The researchers found that practices were variable and a number of incidents of greater concern were observed while venues had made physical and operational modifications on re-opening, including the limiting of close physical interaction between customers and staff, according to the study authors.

The study is the first to examine the operation of COVID-19 measures in licensed premises, and its findings will inform governments, public health experts, and policymakers in the United Kingdom and other countries as they consider the impact of the pandemic.

“Our study explored and observed business practices and behaviors of customers and staff in licensed premises in summer 2020 with a view to understanding if and how COVID-19 transmission risks could be managed in settings where alcohol is served,” said research lead Niamh Fitzgerald, in a press release. “We interviewed business owners and representatives prior to re-opening to understand the challenges being faced. When pubs reopened last July, following the initial UK lockdown, our team visited premises to observe how government measures designed to reduce transmission risks in hospitality settings were working in practice, including any incidents likely to increase those risks.”

The research team conducted interviews with stakeholders to gauge the sector’s thoughts around implementing COVID-19 measures in licensed premises prior to COVID-19 restrictions being lifted. The interviews, which were conducted in May and June 2020, identified commercial challenges of lifting restrictions, including financial implications and a risk of compromising the customer experience, according to the study authors.

Further, 29 observations of licensed premises took place in July and August 2020, with the researchers monitoring premises for up to 2 hours while posing as customers. The study found that although the venues introduced new layouts, signage, and hand sanitizing stations, the stations were infrequently used. Two of the venues routinely administered sanitizer to customers’ hands-on entry.

Most venues required customers to provide contact details to support contact tracing; however, 9 businesses observed did not, including 1 venue visited after this was made mandatory by the Scottish Government in August. Although staff wore personal protective equipment (PPE) in most venues, in several the staff wore no PPE and wore masks inappropriately or removed them to talk to other staff or customers, according to the study authors. While most venues distanced their tables by 1 meter or more, several had tables closer together without partitions.

One-way systems were implemented to help regulate the flow of customers, and pinch points were problematic in nearly all venues, with entrances, corridors, doorways, and bar counter areas leading to bottlenecks and people congregating, often unchallenged. Fewer than half of the venues offered table service only, whereas in at least 1 venue observed in July, a continuous queue formed in the 1-meter space between tables, according to the study authors.

Additionally, fewer than half of the venues had a basic system in place to limit the number of customers entering toilets, while most had no measures to ensure physical distancing inside those areas, with no cubicles or sinks condemned. Within toilet areas in some premises, overcrowding and poor physical distancing was observed to be a problem.

The research team identified factors that interacted to give rise to the more serious incidents, such as:
 
  • Physical set up and operation of premises
  • Social atmosphere
  • Customer behavior
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Staff practices

“Our study makes a unique contribution by providing the first evidence, including direct observation data, of how premises operated in practice when allowed to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Fitzgerald said in a press release. “Overall, our findings suggest grounds for uncertainty about the extent to which new rules can be consistently and effectively implemented in a sector where interaction between tables, households and strangers is the norm, and alcohol is routinely consumed.” 

Fitzgerald added that despite the efforts of licensed premises, and detailed guidance from the government, potentially significant risks of COVID-19 transmission persisted in a substantial minority of observed bars, especially when customers were intoxicated.

“Blanket closures, curfews or alcohol sales bans are more likely to be deemed necessary to control virus spread, if such risks cannot be acceptably, quickly and cost-effectively reduced through support and/or sanctions for premises operators,” Fitzgerald said in a press release. “Such blanket actions may also have benefits in terms of protecting staff from occupational exposure and reducing pressure on emergency services from alcohol-related injuries or disorder. However, attention also needs to be paid to the impact of closures on businesses, economic activity, employee hardship, and ownership patterns in the sector, as well as any risks posed by diversion of some drinking to the home.”

REFERENCE
New study questions whether pubs can effectively and consistently prevent COVID-19 transmission risks. University of Stirling. https://www.stir.ac.uk/news/2021/february-2021-news/new-study-questions-whether-pubs-can-effectively-and-consistently-prevent-covid-19-transmission-risks-/. Published February 16, 2021. Accessed February 16, 2021.