New Delhi: A screening device is aimed at you as soon as you enter the bar, and you are required to clean your hands with a sanitiser kept handy. The staff at the entrance asks you for your number and jots it down. As you reach your seat, you realise the music is mellow — you can groove gently to it, but it won’t entice you to the dance floor.
You also notice it’s not as chilly as usual.
There’s a ping on your phone and you find the menu has been WhatsApped to you. A waiter then arrives — geared up in a mask, face shield and gloves — and you can place your order. A quick scan of the place — you are only among a handful of people there — reveals things are not back to normal quite yet.
Your drinks arrive and, despite the differences, an old familiar feeling sneaks up on you. There are few things that match up to drinks with friends at a cosy watering hole.
Pubs and bars across Delhi reopened Wednesday, although at 50 per cent capacity in line with social-distancing guidelines. The decision was taken by the Lieutenant Governor-led Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) last week and will be up for a review 30 September.
The SoP issued by the Delhi Disaster Management Authority states that the premises only deploy the manpower deemed adequate, and sanitise the premises at frequent intervals. Standing customers are barred, and violations could mean sealing of premises or the cancellation of their licences.
Returning patrons were clearly happy about the reopening of the watering holes, but the turnout was still low on the first night, as ThePrint found on a survey through three popular bars — QBA, My Bar Headquarters, and The Matchbox — at two of Delhi’s prime party destinations, Connaught Place and Hauz Khas Village.
At The Matchbox only 12-20 people had visited between opening time at noon and 9.30 pm, while the capacity of the bar is about 40-50 people. My Bar which has a capacity of 250 people, only had about 70 people during the peak evening hours.
‘No gigs, game nights’
At all the three bars, the music was soft — part of an effort to discourage visitors from taking to the dance floor.
“There will be no gigs, no loud music. The DJs have been instructed to keep it as low as possible because, once people start dancing, it gets uncontrollable,” said Vipin Sharma, the manager of QBA at Connaught Place.
The My Bar Headquarters, one of the more popular pubs, said they are swearing off loud music, live gigs and game nights for now.
“We only plan to put up light IPL games. This is because people tend to get all the more drunk when it’s a game night, like the IPL finals. We can’t ask people to keep sitting, so (we are) changing the ambience now,” said Angad Singh of My Bar. Singh also emphasised that live music gigs may not be making a comeback at My Bar any time soon.
Another major change is that you can longer walk to just any table — the staff will assign you one to make sure social distancing is maintained.
The bars are also a little too hot right now. Health Ministry guidelines for Covid-19 require AC temperature to be set at 24-30°C, with adequate cross ventilation — which means windows have to be kept open.
Gulzar Anand, 28, said coming to a bar after nearly six months was nothing less than “breaking from a cage” but the temperature was an issue.
“Bars give you an ambience, it makes alcohol taste better. I am a typical Punjabi, who loves drinking and partying with friends. With family at home, it’s nearly impossible to get drunk, but the AC temperature here is too high,” said Anand, wiping some sweat off his forehead with a tissue.
But management believes these are but small inconveniences that need to be sped through for the time being.
“A little discomfort can be dealt with, the risk of contracting Covid is far far worse,” said QBA General Manager Karuna Kantha Devnath.
While My Bar and The Matchbox continue with the system of paper menus, QBA’s system has changed. They now only give menus on WhatsApp, this ensures both social distancing and also contact tracing.
Hauz Khas bears the brunt
Hauz Khas Village, that narrow lane buzzing with bars, eateries, pubs and grub, has taken a hard hit during the lockdown. When ThePrint visited the plush area Wednesday night, only two bars were open, The Matchbox and Official.
“There were approximately 50-52 bars and pubs here, but now after the pandemic started, only 5-6 have survived. They simply couldn’t bear the expenses. Delhi’s party scene will not resume anytime soon, it will be too much to expect,” said Matchbox owner Mahavir Mohanty.
According to Mohanty, the two main reasons for pubs and bars shutting down are excise duty payments and landlords who refused to share the burden.
“Bar and pubs paid excise duties in March and, now again, we have to pay in September. Most couldn’t survive and applied to shut down. My other branch at Kishangarh has also shut down,” Mohanty said. He added that bar and pub owners are planning to request L-G Anil Baijal to offer some kind of relaxation if not waive the excise duty altogether.
“Some landlords weren’t understanding, eventually, the owners had to shut down their places as they couldn’t afford the rent in addition to electricity bills and staff salaries. We have incurred huge losses,” Mohanty said, adding that his own losses during lockdown totalled around Rs 35 lakh.
My Bar owner Manjeet Singh echoed the concerns, saying they had to shut down their Greater Kailash Market property due to high rent liabilities.
In order to make a comeback into the business, they will start reducing the prices of liquor and food, said Singh. “If we reduce prices, then, hopefully, more people will come, and it won’t just be limited to business at night,” Singh added.
Finally a place to relax, unwind
At My Bar, a group of women in their late 20s couldn’t contain their excitement about finally being able to come back to a bar.
“Bars reopening is nothing but freedom. I have been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic. This is just what we needed, people need relaxation and no doubt drinking in a pub always gives better ‘feels’, and alcohol also tastes better than it does at home,” said Shanu Sharma, who works in the administrative department of a private hospital at Delhi NCR.
“Thank God the pubs have opened,” her friend Mallika D chimed in. “Just couldn’t wait to step outside, see people and hear some music with drinks at hand.”