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The coronavirus diaries: Tara Smyth

On Thursday 26 March 2020, my partner, James Santillo and I celebrated two years of running The Duke’s Head. Thursday 26th March 2020 also happens to be the first day of our personal lockdown, not quite the day we had planned in our heads, but we did still drink the bottle of champagne we had been gifted so I wouldn’t say it was a terrible day.

When we took over The Duke’s Head in March 2018, we thought we were ready for anything. Not in a naïve way, it’s running a pub, it’s a nightmare (and that’s the good days) but we had our plans, we knew the direction we wanted to take the business and we were excited. 

The past two years have been full on, there has been a lot of planning and a lot of trial and error but our quality over quantity approach to menu writing and our unwillingness to compromise on the environmental and ethical sourcing of ingredients has appealed to a much larger demographic than we ever could have expected. When you start a business, they say your third year is when you really hit your stride. I would say our third year is off to a bit of a slow start. 

Coronavirus hit Norfolk and Suffolk in quite a slow way, confirmed cases across the two counties were low and although we had diversified our offering to include take-away and implemented incredibly strict hygiene measures we still felt quite removed from it all. When the government made the necessary decision to close the pubs on Friday 20 March, we were heading into a fully booked take-away service. 

Although expected, we couldn’t even begin to digest the information as the first person had just arrived to collect their order and we still had another 2 hours of service to get through. In my 10 years working in hospitality it was the strangest, most stressful and yet the most heart-warming weekend I have experienced. The level of support we received was astronomical; the phone never stopped, we were fully booked for take-away Saturday night and Sunday lunch (a Mother’s Day we definitely didn’t think we would be fully booked for) and our regular customers turned out in force to support our shop. 

Then the announcement came on Monday 23 March, the official lockdown and all our shop and take-away plans came to a rather sudden end. Unfortunately, unlike some other businesses we could not risk continuing with a take-away offering; James has Crohn’s disease (in the most basic of explanations it is a disease where your immune system attacks your intestines/colon as it thinks they shouldn’t be there) so his immunosuppressed status places him on the high risk list, so we finished our last shop orders, deep-cleaned the pub and came home.

Hospitality isn’t an industry known for offering large amounts of contemplative time, the days disappear in the repetition of getting ready for service, doing service and clearing up after service. You leave the house at 8am, you get home at midnight and you repeat. Myself, along with the millions of hospitality workers who currently find themselves in the same boat are not only adjusting to everyone else’s ‘new normal’ but have had to conduct a complete 180 on the lives we used to lead. Attempting to fill days and nights with a stimulus that isn’t a glass of wine or a bottle of beer is certainly a challenge I think a lot of us will be facing, myself and James definitely had to curb our new tradition of an afternoon beer in the sun. We appreciate that we are in a very fortunate position, thanks to the government grant our business is safe for the time being, the furlough scheme means our team can continue to be paid and years of neglecting our home mean there is plenty of DIY to keep us busy but the uncertainty of the future definitely plays heavy on our minds.

Planning for our re-opening is certainly an interesting experience, without any clear information, speculation is rife. Flicking through newspapers and websites you could read countless different scenarios as to how and when we will reopen. Hundreds of questions run through my mind; will the government limit capacity by 50%? If yes, will they fund the 50% of lost earnings? Will we be open for summer? Will we be open for Christmas? How will we protect our team? Once we reopen will we have to have a person working on the door who counts guests in and out like a nightclub? How will we regulate guests going to the toilet? I could go on and I doubt I am alone in these thoughts but the big question I guess is, will the hospitality industry ever be the same again?

One thing for certain is our two cats certainly don’t seem to appreciate losing their premier seat tickets for the sofa, but then we are all having to adapt in some way. 

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