After a third national lockdown, the country is this morning preparing for “the resuscitation moment” for towns and city centres, as outdoor hospitality and non-essential retail reopened for the first time in months. Here is what to expect as thousands of traders across the region welcome back consumers.
Having been unable to go out for a pint and a bite to eat for the vast majority of the last 12 months, demand for tables at bars and restaurants with outdoor space has been high leading up to unlocking.
At Ramona, a Detroit-style pizza restaurant on Swan Street in Manchester, more than 10,000 requests for outdoor seating were made within 24 hours of the bookings going live.
“I am beginning to think there is more money in pizza than property,” said Tim Heatley, co-founder of developer Capital & Centric, which co-owns the site with Kamani Property Group.
Chris Middleton is in charge of running Bruntwood’s Oxford Road leisure complex Hatch but when he tried to book a table there, the earliest slot that was available was late May.
“It has been absolutely crazy. There is a massive desire for people to get back to normality,” he said.
“This is the resuscitation moment for the whole of the hospitality sector.”
Shoppers will see crowd marshals and extra police in many areas deployed to ensure people are socially distancing and wearing masks when required.
Public transport strain
Those wishing to head to the city for a few drinks may find the experience of being back in the confined spaces of buses, trams and trains a bizarre and unsettling one, and Transport for Greater Manchester is advising caution ahead of what will be the busiest period of public transport for some time.
TfGM predicts that, in order to maintain safe social distancing, trams need to be limited to 25% capacity and buses 30%.
To cope with the anticipated influx of commuters and daytrippers into Manchester, Metrolink and bus services, which have been operating on a reduced timetable in recent months, will return to pre-Covid levels of vehicles, according to TfGM.
The transport body is also encouraging users to ‘spread the peak’, by asking commuters to travel between 10am and 3pm unless they must travel to jobs starting or finishing at rush hour times.
“From today people are going to come back in massive numbers but we’re on the road to recovery so everyone has to be careful,” Cllr Pat Karney, city centre spokesperson for Manchester City Council, told Place North West.
Despite measures being taken to ensure the safety of passengers, there will still be plenty of punters unwilling to take the risk of hopping on a train, which could present an opportunity for taxi firms.
Uber saw bookings drop by 75% year-on-year in 2020 but had its food delivery business to fall back on. For independent taxi firms, the last 12 months has been a nightmare.
“We went from a 500-car fleet to 50 cars overnight,” said Itsy Sadiq, general manager of Lynx Taxis in Hazel Grove. Since the onset of the pandemic, the company has spent £40,000 making cars Covid-secure, installing plastic screens to separate passengers from drivers, and anticipates a 25% to 30% uptick in bookings as outdoor hospitality and retail reopens.
“We need businesses to stay open now. It has been so hard to survive and pay wages,” Sadiq said.
Clean streets and packed pavements
Towns and cities across the region have been spruced up ahead of today’s grand reopening.
“We want to try and create a city that is as clean and welcoming as we can as that is going to be a big concern for consumers going forward,” said Carl Critchlow, chair of Chester BID.
“People who have been locked down or shielding will want to visit somewhere that is spotless.”
The same has happened in Liverpool with enhanced cleaning and safety measures backed up by campaigns via Marketing Liverpool running throughout the city and on social media.
In Manchester, cleaning company Ramora has been dousing the city in an anti-viral spray before steam cleaning areas of public realm, and street furniture. This process is to be repeated every 48 hours.
“The most important thing is to increase confidence for people to come into the city,” said Cllr Angeliki Stogia, executive member for the environment at Manchester City Council.
“Lowering the transmission of the virus is very important because at the end of the day we don’t want to go back into lockdown.”
In the hospitality sector, the focus in preparing for easing has been on making sure outside space is optimised and there has been a flurry of applications for pavement licenses so that bars and restaurants are able to open within Government guidance and start to recoup pandemic losses.
However, while councils have generally rushed through requests for outdoor seating to accommodate businesses, it has not been possible to grant every request.
“If you are going to be serving drinks outside it has got to be part of your licenced space, generally speaking,” said Alan Cavill, head of regeneration and tourism at Blackpool Council.
“If there is no space outside but there is some across the road that doesn’t really help you and there is not much we can do about that.”
Liverpool One has increased its outdoor seating capacity by 100% in a bid to give traders the chance to hit the ground running, offering occupiers 610 additional covers.
“We have a responsibility to reassure visitors they can return safely, while also inspiring them to spend time enjoying Liverpool One with friends and family as the lockdown begins to lift,” said Alison Clegg, managing director of the Liverpool team at Grosvenor.
Bruntwood’s Hatch is well-placed to take full advantage of today’s partial unlocking and is in the enviable position of not needing to apply for a pavement license. The site has ample outdoor seating.
The path to reopening has been far from straightforward for Bruntwood, however, as it embarked on a controversial overhaul of its drinks offer within Hatch.
The landlord essentially brought the wet offer in-house, electing not to renew leases held by independent traders, and run the bars itself; a move it said was necessary to keep the venture going.
Middleton insists that the model of operation Bruntwood has now reverted to is one that similar venues use: “the unfortunate thing is we realised retrospectively,” he said.
The negative press that followed the firm’s decision failed to mention the fact that Bruntwood compensated exiting businesses and helped them look for alternative sites. One former Hatch favourite, Clubhouse, will be opening within Leftbank in Spinningfields this week.
“Because of the timing it is very difficult to convince people it is not a profiteering scheme,” Middleton said.
“We didn’t want to have to take the action we took. However, it is just not sustainable to lose large sums of money year on year.”
Closed shops and bars
While many bars and restaurants are fortunate enough to have the outdoor space required to reopen, many more do not have that luxury and will be forced to keep their doors closed until the middle of May, according to the government’s roadmap.
Greater Manchester’s night-time economy advisor Sacha Lord is spearheading calls for a judicial review into the Government’s decision to allow the wholesale reopening of non-essential retail while keeping the majority of hospitality shuttered. He fears many sites might never reopen.
“There are thousands of operators across the region who do not have outdoor space or the financial capability for outdoor set up,” Lord said.
“We estimate this affects around 60% of all operators in the UK, many of whom will likely go out of business as a result, despite having spent hundreds of thousands of pounds creating Covid-secure environments.”
Mark Robinson, head of retail developer Ellandi and chair of the High Streets Taskforce, told Place North West that people may be surprised by the number of shops that do not reopen today.
In Manchester, Catalan restaurant Lunya was one of the first to fall victim of the pandemic while Jigsaw, TM Lewin, and Kiehl’s all shut up shop on King Street in the last 12 months. Popular brands like Paperchase on St Mary’s Gate and Carluccios at Spinningfields have also gone.
Just last week, John Lewis announced it was to close its Chester store, although others around the region will reopen today. In Liverpool One, Miss Selfridge, Topman and Topshop all fell foul of Arcadia’s high-profile collapse. Debenhams department stores will reopen temporarily to sell remaining stock before closing permanently.
Shoppers returning to town and city centres will see the extent of the bloodbath on the high street when they return and see which brands are the survivors that can raise their shutters and flip signs to ‘open’.
However, it is not all doom and gloom for retail.
Chester-based fashion designer Matthew O’Brien has launched Haus of MOB, a loungewear and sportswear ‘diffusion’ store. Other businesses Weasel and The Bug, Sweet Elements and Beer Heroes have used the lockdown to significantly refurbish.
Japanese restaurant, Hamayuu has opened on Watergate Street, while The Hotel on Newgate Street is set to open for bookings from today. Forthcoming openings include restaurants Izikaya and Artezzan, and Wildes hotel.
Chester has bucked the trend in terms of retail, offering a view into what the high streets of the future might look like with the arrival of several independent traders, while a number of larger, national retailers have fallen by the wayside.
“This summer is going to be a bumper one as some people will have quite a lot of disposable income” Critchlow said.
“The act of shopping is experiential and doing it online doesn’t replace going into a shop and being able to touch, feel, smell and interact.”
Today marks the debut for many of Chester’s arrivals and the first airing for stores which spent lockdown investing in their premises by refurbishing.
Paradoxically, given the high-profile demise of retail, the last year has strengthened Chester’s reputation as a hub for independent businesses, according to Critchlow.
“Chester is different to neighbouring towns and cities that have a more basic retail offer. We have a range of businesses you would struggle to find anywhere else,” he said.