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Local businesses left frustrated and low by restrictions

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“Tough, challenging, living in a constant low and frustrating” is how some business owners in the Causeway Coast & Glens area have described dealing with the ongoing Covid restrictions.

With the Northern Ireland Executive due to have its next formal review on April 15, there is a glimmer of hope for hairdressers and beauticians that the end is drawing closer as it is understood they could be set to reopen from the end of the month under proposals submitted to the Executive’s coronavirus taskforce by Economy Minister Diane Dodds.

However, for some restaurant and so-called ‘wet bar’ owners, the lack of clarity and uncertainty surrounding potential opening dates for their businesses continues.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service spoke to four business owners about how the past year of restrictions has affected them and their hopes of re-opening again.

Clare Johnston, landlady of the Railway Arms or Johnson’s as it is also known as, spoke about the difficulties of the past 13 months.

“It’s so hard to describe the feelings, but I live in a constant low filled with worries. I miss work, the routine, a reason to get up and I miss the company and people. We have such a family at J’s and there is an immense loss.

“I never thought a year later that we would still be in this position. It’s all very frustrating and a worry about how we will rebuild. The future is definitely a lot more frightening now.”

With ongoing concerns for the family business, Clare diversified whilst the bar remained closed.

“I started to do off licence sales. I felt it was very important to keep our name out there and offer a service to my loyal customers and hopefully reach more and I needed to feel I had a purpose.

“I then decided to offer hampers and saw with my licence I could offer something not everyone could with alcohol. Once I started I saw the importance of ensuring my hampers were supporting other local businesses and them me. So I got in touch with some local suppliers and now Johnston’sFood And Drink.com has been set up. “

Like many other bar owners in the Province, the lack of clarity about an opening date is a major issue for Clare.

“We have been given no idea when we can start trading again. We are hoping for some clarity on April 15, but my major concern is that we will be left to the very end.

“I am very aware it will depend on the R rate when we can start to open again but the last thing we want is to open and have to close again. We need an idea when our sector might open so we can prepare. The future as it is, is not sustainable to survive long term.

“It’s frustrating when we have the set up right and we’re doing everything asked of us. We just want a fair playing field but we also have to be respectful of what we are dealing with – Covid – and at the end of day we just want everyone safe and to be able to run our business safely.”

The talk of ‘vaccine passports’ for pub goers has been greeted with opposition from many landlords and licensees. However, getting open first is a priority for Clare.

“Vaccine passports may come in the future and if we have to deal with that then we will,” she said. “I just hope we can get open without this being another hold up but again we have to go by the guidelines and work with them best we can. It’s all difficult because it’s all out of our control.

“All I know is I can’t wait to get back and pour a pint, have some craic and run J’s safely, making sure we have a happy pub just like before.”

Stella Bolton, owner of the French Rooms, a restaurant in Bushmills described it as “a very challenging time for small businesses”.

She said: “Our expansion plans were halted in March 2020, and it’s been difficult financially to cover all the business costs we are incurring despite the closures. We have availed of whatever Government support which was great, particularly the furlough scheme for our staff, but we have had to rely on personal finances and borrowings to cover other costs.

“We worry about our team, many of whom are young adults whose lives and career progression have been curtailed by the epidemic. The positives are that businesses have supported each other.

“As Taste Causeway members, we have benefited from the camaraderie and support small business operators have provided for each other, so as a collaborative, we will emerge stronger.”

Despite the news that some restrictions may be relaxed after April 15, Stella is not expecting to reopen until next month.

“We are a licensed restaurant, so we are prepared for a later date. There may be concessions for hospitality businesses with outdoor facilities, but sadly we at The French Rooms are limited.

“We are tentatively planning for a May opening at the earliest and hope the NI Executive engages with the industry now to work through the regulations and possible mitigations to help the majority of hospitality businesses reopen for the summer season. As a business, we are clear that we do not want to reopen for a short period. When we reopen, we want to stay open.”

The French Rooms owner is expecting to follow a variety of regulations when the doors finally open again.

“There is no doubt social distancing, handwashing and face coverings will remain with us across society for some time to come.

“We expect restrictions on household mixing per table as before and social distancing, which reduces our capacity. We operated well when the regulation was set at a minimum of 1 meter with mitigations, but if it were to rise, we cannot see how we could operate with any level of viability.”

As Northern Ireland takes gradual steps out of Covid lockdown, hairdressers, beauticians and other close contact services are more optimistic that there is light at the end of the tunnel for them with April 26 suggested as a possible opening date.

Clare Seaton, owner of Moods Hairdressers in Coleraine has already been inundated with clients hoping to book appointments.

“This past year has been a really difficult time for me and my business,” said Claire. “I’ve had to really cut back and try to keep positive as best I can.

“Hopefully I will hear on April 15 that we can open at the end of the month. I’ve been getting a lot of texts from clients asking me to put them on a list. It’s going to be a shock to the system going back to work full time after being off for so long.

“It’s just a matter of time until I’ll be opening again and with that comes excitement at being able to see the girls and all my clients.

“I’m hoping this is the last lockdown we have to experience, hopefully with so many people vaccinated we won’t have to deal with it again.”

Beverley Floyd, owner of Capital Beauty in Portstewart has been left frustrated by the closures over the past year.

She said; “It has been frustrating for me to be closed so long as I operate with just one client at a time, wearing all the PPE equipment. So to walk around a supermarket or see queues of people for coffee has been annoying because my clients have expressed how they feel safer in the salon than they do in these places.

“I never thought we would be here one year on and with all the new measures put in place, I didn’t think our industry would have to close again after the first lockdown. However, I think with everything opening very quickly at the same time last year it was inevitable that there would be a second wave.”

Beverley has been grateful for the financial support she has received, but she remains concerned her business will return to the same levels as it enjoyed pre-Covid.

“Thankfully I qualified for LRSS (Localised Restrictions Support Scheme) however it did take 10 weeks to confirm I was eligible. Thankfully my payments have been in time since but I know from our industry group on Facebook that others have been waiting for further payments since January.

“There are many others who have slipped through the cracks. It’s sad to see businesses that have had to close. It’s concerning that this money will have to be recouped somehow in the future. I worry about what kind of business we will go back to? So many people have been doing their own treatments for so long now – will they come back to us?”

In England, non-essential retail, hairdressers, nail salons and gyms will reopen from April 12. Pubs and restaurants serving outside will also reopen on Monday.

In Scotland, hairdressers and barbers reopened for pre-booked appointments earlier this week, while hairdressers in Wales reopened for pre-booked appointments last month.

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Gillian Anderson - Local Democracy Reporter
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