Is Covid-19 set to call time on alcohol at events?

Should we be offering alcohol to delegates when face-to-face events resume – or is it an unnecessary risk factor?

It’s a question that planners could be forced to contemplate, after new research found that bars and pubs continue to pose a risk for the spread of Covid – with experts admitting that drunkenness exacerbates the problem.

The research, carried out in Scotland last summer, revealed problems including crowding, singing customers, and staff failing to intervene.

“Undoubtedly the risks will apply differently in different premises,” said Prof Niamh Fitzgerald, the director of the University of Stirling’s Institute for Social Marketing and Health, who led the research. “But there are very real issues around the social nature of pubs and the alcohol factor that makes them different from other public spaces.”

To carry out the research, Fitzgerald and her colleagues posed as customers in 29 bars and pubs around Scotland in July and August, spending up to two hours assessing the venue’s compliance with guidance and the behaviour of staff and customers.

Virtually all of the premises had made operational changes, such as one-way systems, moving tables further apart, using government signage and hygiene measures such as disposable cutlery.

Common problems included customers passing close to each other in corridors and around the toilets, and less than half of premises offering table service only.

More serious problems were found in a large minority of venues, including customers joining people at other tables, hugging others, and prolonged singing, shouting or playing music.

“In most of those incidents the customers were drunk,” says Fitzgerald.

Last summer saw pubs and bars implicated in Covid outbreaks in Aberdeen and Preston, with local lockdowns implemented as a result.

And academics have previously said that pubs create a “perfect storm” for spreading coronavirus.

Clearly, the problem is more existential for bars and pubs – they will not survive if they can’t serve alcohol.

But there will also be many event planners out there for whom alcohol forms an integral part of their events. How many networking events, to name just one example, are helped on their way by a large supply of the sparkling stuff?

The government’s route out of the current lockdown looks to rely on a more risk-averse strategy to reopening bars and pubs, indicating that they are heeding the potential dangers around alcohol and the spread of Covid-19.

We are still waiting to see how and when in-person meetings are allowed to take place again – details that may not emerge for some time.

But for organisers of events where alcohol is served, it is worth bearing in mind that there could be some difficult decisions coming down the tracks.

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