Most bars had already shut. Those that were staying open until the midnight deadline were more or less empty. The last few drinkers sat around, subdued, ruminating on the fact that they were about to enter a world where you can no longer nip out for a pint.
“The football’s stopped, I can’t go and see my nana and grandad, and now we’re not even allowed an ale,” said Adam Linacre, 21, outside the Benjamin Huntsman pub. “That’s basically everything I love – gone.”
Social media may have been filled with pictures of people across the UK going out with a bang, but if other places were like this South Yorkshire city, those were selective shots only.
Here, streets and squares normally humming with life were dark and deserted. The lights in bars had been switched off and theirs doors closed. Restaurants that remained open had chairs on tables; takeaway only for the foreseeable future.
Linacre had been in his local when the compulsory closures – expected but still astonishing – were announced by the prime minister at 5pm.
“I was already a couple of pints in,” he explained, as we talked, at distance, while he smoked. “I figured let’s make tonight one last ‘ta-ra’.”
A glance up and down the street took in a Yates, a Pitcher and Piano, and an Ask restaurant, all standing empty. “Although I don’t know how much of a ‘ta-ra’ you can have when everywhere is this dead,” he said.
His mate, Oliver, nodded along. He didn’t want to give his last name. “I know how you’ll write it,” he said. “You’re gonna make us sound like right selfish dicks for being out, like we don’t care or whatever.”
In fact, he insisted, they do care. As supermarket stock-takers, both have experienced first-hand the distress and disorder caused by Covid-19. They actually agree, they said, with the need to close pubs for a while.
“But I’m 21,” said Oliver. “I don’t know what else to do on a weekend if it’s not going out.”
It was a surprisingly common consensus among those having a drink. Venues should be shut, most told The Independent. It’s just: what now?
“I keep hearing this is unprecedented in peacetime,” said Josh Rodgers. “But it’s unprecedented, full stop. They didn’t even shut pubs during the war.”
He considered this for a moment. “But then the Nazis weren’t attacking us through the air we breathe, were they?”
Rodgers is a bartender at the city’s Head of Steam pub. When we spoke, it was 9pm and the place had not long closed. Staff had been told they would be kept on thanks to the government’s job retention scheme, and a handful of workers were having a last drink together.
They had spilled outside into Tudor Square, a plaza surrounded by bars and three theatres and usually, therefore, a night-time focal point.
This evening, however, it was so empty that someone from the Head of Steam had found a ball in the back room and brought it out for a kick-about. They stood spraying 50-yard passes where theatregoers and drinkers would normally have gathered. “It’s pretty surreal,” said Rodgers. “I’ve never seen the city like it. I never thought I would.”
He believed the ban was sensible but had a similar concern: “What do British people do in a crisis if they can’t go to the pub?”
His colleague Emily Fitzgerald recalled how she was pulling pints and watching the news on the venue’s big screen when the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced the government would cover the employee wages of companies that were struggling.
“We all let out a massive cheer,” she said. “Never thought I’d say that about a Tory government.”
Speaking of nearby Rotherham, where she comes from, she said: “There’s a pub there doing a pound a pint tonight to get rid of stock. Happy days – unless someone infected goes in and takes the whole pub down with them. I have visions of seeing the news in a week and Rotherham being an epidemic hotspot – just because everyone was trying to get cheap booze.”
No such bargains appeared on offer anywhere in Sheffield city centre, although both the Wetherspoons pubs – cheap at any time – were among the busier establishments still going.
In one, the Bankers Draft, drinkers – mainly middle-aged men – sat watching the BBC’s coronavirus coverage.
“I think closing pubs is an overreaction,” said Steve Bold as he left. “It’s just a bad flu, isn’t it? They’re talking about this going on for a year but who says they’ll have a vaccine even then? At some point, they’re just going to have to let people take their chances.”
If that happens, will he be back out? “Absolutely, mate. What’s the point of life if you can’t socialise anyway?”
True enough, perhaps, but as the night wore on, there seemed little appetite for defying the ban.
Standing outside the Bungalows and Bears in the city’s usually lively Division Street, Michael Yishak, another bartender, was philosophical about the whole situation.
“I wanted a last drink before the ban starts but, you know, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do,” he said. “It will be strange, but we’ll get through it. For me, it’s just about looking forward to the parties we’ll have when it’s over. Can you imagine them? That’s going to be a night to remember.”
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