A Journal of the Plague Week 22

Sunday, August 16th, 2020

It was sweltering this past week, that kind of airless, unrelenting heat where you’d step outside in the hope of refreshment and find it was even more stifling out than in. No fan could dispel it, no icy drink could cool it.

The orientation of our house is such that the afternoon sun shines directly into our front windows, turning our flat into something like a greenhouse, even with the blinds drawn. My desk sits in a little alcove in front of the windows, and by about 3:30 every afternoon last week, I had pretty much been reduced to a puddle of sweat in a desk chair. Working, cooking, taking ballet class—by Tuesday afternoon, none of this seemed reasonable or even feasible anymore. So we went to the beach instead.

There are two establishments we’d had our eyes on since summer arrived, bringing with it the possibility of going out for a drink and/or meal without having to sit indoors (which we’re still very much not doing). One was the awkwardly named Shelter Hall Raw, a brand-new food hall on the beach which I suspect was planning to launch with great fanfare this summer, until…well, you know. It’s still somewhat under construction, but it’s been open since early July and has a big terrace pretty much right on the beach. Several good independent Brighton restaurants have outposts there, including Lost Boys Chicken, our favorite purveyor of Buffalo wings and—in the Before Times—our usual post-Thursday-ballet-class destination for “Wing Nite”.

They have a good setup at the Shelter Hall, with decently spaced outdoor seating and, very handily, a website where you order your food to be brought to your table. Under other circumstances, this might feel alienating and dystopian—but under COVID circumstances it’s great, because it minimizes face-to-face chit-chat and means there are fewer people circulating. Once you’re seated, you place your order on your phone and enter your table number, and a short time later you’re enjoying frosty beer and spicy chicken sandwiches (or whatever else takes your fancy—there’s everything from oysters to ice cream). It was already fairly busy when we arrived at about 6 p.m., but we were able to seat ourselves and it didn’t feel overly crowded, By the time we finished up, though, a line of people had formed waiting to get in, and I suspected that the atmosphere might not be quite so sedate as the evening went on. I’m glad we got in and out when we did.

Wednesday was supposed to be the start of a series of thunderstorms after the heat, so we figured we’d make the most of the last sunny evening and visit a second outdoor establishment: the Bison Beach Bar, which is run by a local craft beer brewery and has a pop-up kitchen doing food. The current culinary offering is from Wood & Coal, and the promise of food cooked over FIRE (and another cold beer) was too great to resist. We’d hoped that since the Beach Bar is at a quieter end of the beach and has a lot of seating (all of it outdoors), there wouldn’t be too many people if we got there early enough.

But right off the bat, the vibe was very different than it had been the evening before. When we showed up at about 5:30, it was already rather crowded and there were no free tables (there were empty tables, but they were reserved). We managed to grab two deck chairs and pull them off to the side to make our own little seating area, but two other people with deck chairs subsequently plopped themselves uncomfortably close to us, so we kept scooting ourselves further away as best we could. On top of that, the Beach Bar had advertised an online ordering app like the Shelter Hall, but they weren’t actually accepting orders through it. This meant that folks had to line up at the bar to order, and—more distressingly—there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, with everyone constantly moving back and forth between the bar and their tables—and often squeezing through the too-small space between us and the people who had sat too close to us. The line at the bar was orderly enough, and no one was being particularly loud or boisterous (most folks were just having a quiet late-afternoon beer, and there some kids there, and some cute dogs)—but there also wasn’t a whole lot of proper social distancing going on, and even though we were outdoors, everything and everyone felt too close.

We’d ordered our food as soon as we showed up, and when we finally tucked into it, it was quite astonishingly delicious. We had flank steak with chips/fries and chimichurri sauce, and chicken with salad and hot sauce, and every component of every single thing was stunningly tasty. The steak was tender and gorgeously seasoned, the chicken was charred and juicy, the salad was perfectly dressed, and the fries—I don’t know what they did to fries, but I’m not especially a ~fry person~ and I could not. stop. eating. them. We just kept taking a bite of food and looking at each other like “How is this SO good?” and taking another bite of food and looking at each other, etc.etc., until every scrap of food was gone and we were left shaking our heads in contented awe.

However. We both agreed about halfway through the meal that as soon as we were finished, we needed to leave. Despite being outside, and despite the generally well-behaved clientele, just the number of people circulating from table to bar and back again made it feel a lot more dicey than the Shelter Hall had. As I chewed on a succulent morsel of steak, I wondered to myself, “How much risk is this outstanding steak worth?” Obviously, eating any food anywhere involves some risk—the risk of food poisoning if nothing else. But this was risk of a different nature somehow, and potentially with consequences of a much greater magnitude. I can’t quantify the amount of risk I’m willing to take for a good meal (and I will certainly take some risk—I still eat oysters despite having once gotten miserably sick from them), but the gut feeling that both Jeremy and I had while sitting at the Beach Bar and eating that fabulous food was that it was a risk too far.

Toward the very end of our time at the Shelter Hall the previous night, as we were nursing the last of our beverages and watching the sunset, Jeremy asked, “Do you think this is safe?” And I had thought it was pretty safe until the moment he asked, at which point I suddenly wasn’t so sure. I mostly came down on the side of yes for the reasons mentioned above—the spaced tables, the online ordering, the fresh sea breeze. But in retrospect, I don’t know if it was really any better than the Beach Bar, which didn’t feel entirely safe. Even though maybe it was…?

As we walked to the bus stop on our way home that first night, we sized up various venues as we went past and judged whether we would (hypothetically) visit them. Wagamama (which had a line of people waiting outside), was a hard no for me; though it’s a spacious restaurant and there were plexiglass dividers on the tables, it was packed and noisy—and also, I’m not going to take my life in my hands to eat at a Wagamama (no disrespect to Wagamama—it’s our restaurant of choice at Gatwick Airport). Places with good outdoor seating were generally a yes (and, happily, there seem to be more and more of those in Brighton now)—though the terrace of Fatto a Mano was so crowded that I gave it a no. The North Laine Brewhouse is vast inside and out and was completely empty on Tuesday night, so I gave it a tentative yes (though it’s not a place we would frequent anyway), and the Eagle, a place we have often frequented, is not vast at all, but it was also empty and had cozy tables for two in its wide-open windows, so it also got a yes. (Hypothetically.)

I imagine that, depending on who you are and where you are and what stage of the pandemic your city/state/country finds itself in, some folks will read this and think “What’s wrong with you? Just go out and enjoy yourselves!” (But the virus…!) and others will think “What’s wrong with you? You went to a bar?!” (It was outside! It wasn’t a real bar…!). I myself don’t know what to think anymore. I’m aware of wanting to make the most of the good weather and low coronavirus figures for Brighton while we have the chance, but I’m also aware that it only takes one unwise choice to undo months of caution. I’m aware of caution fatigue, too, and while I think I’m generally too anxious overall to be susceptible to it, I’m also not immune to occasionally doing stupid things because they seem fun at the time.

I guess I’ve got about a week to find out whether those beers on the beach fall into that category.

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