SHUT OUT OF SUPER SATURDAY
Soft play centres, gyms, pools and beauty salons will have to watch from the sidelines as lockdown is eased, finds Hannah Uttley ‘I don’t want the Government to pay me to sunbathe, I want to work, as does everybody in the industry’
Before the crisis hit, Barry Coombs and his wife Lucy were just starting to see an increase in repeat customers at their soft play centre for children. The couple opened Baloo’s Softplay in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, in Feb 2019 after using their savings to set up a business in which they could both work together.
Little over a year later, the company was forced to shut its doors after Boris Johnson ordered a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“It’s been a tough process,” Coombs says. “We were just settling into life managing and opening a soft play centre when the lockdown happened.
“Our daily takings were going up and up, our marketing strategy was working and we were getting more customers through the door.”
Coombs received a further blow last week when he found out Baloo’s would have to wait even longer to reopen than anticipated after the Government revealed that certain parts of the hospitality and leisure industries would be exempt from reopening plans on July 4.
Soft play centres, gyms, swimming pools, nail and beauty salons and spas are among the businesses that will have to wait to reopen, while pubs, restaurants and hotels begin to welcome back customers from tomorrow.
Janine Barclay, who runs a private swim school for children in north London and Hertfordshire, says she has been told it could be anywhere between a matter of weeks to as late as next year before she is able to start up again.
She has been claiming financial support through the Government’s scheme for self-employed workers during the crisis, but says she is eager to get back to work as soon as possible.
“I don’t want the Government to pay me to sunbathe, I want to work, as does everybody in the industry,” she adds.
“The longer we’re closed the worse it’s going to be for everyone because parents aren’t going to be able to send their children back to us because they will be in a similar financial situation.”
Barclay has attempted to offset some of her lost income by tutoring students lucky enough to have access to their own swimming pool using video conferencing service Zoom.
However, she says this is not a long-term solution.
“It’s just not the same,” Barclay adds. “I couldn’t necessarily see what was happening underneath the water to correct the students’ strokes or coach them properly. Being face to face with children and interacting with them, you just can’t beat it.”
Some firms have criticised the Government’s blanket approach to what type of business can and cannot reopen from tomorrow.
Dave Cripps, who runs a boutique fitness centre called Coalition Performance in
Earlswood near Solihull, believes the Government has failed to take into account what sets businesses like his apart from large gym operators where equipment is used continuously by different people throughout the day.
“All our members have their own programme, own equipment and much more space per member compared to a normal gym,” he says. “Places like us have invested significant money to ensure we can social distance and each member has their own kit and space with zero need to move or share with other people.
“These measures exceed what big chain gyms and clubs can do, yet the frustration is that this effort and investment from us during a time of no revenue appears to just be ignored by government.” While there are many operators desperate to reopen as soon as possible, some are choosing to remain shut, despite being given the green light by government.
According to a recent survey by UK Hospitality of 15,000 pubs, restaurants, cafes, hotels and visitor attractions, less than half (42pc) said they would reopen by July 4, with 17pc preparing to wait until later in the month.
Four in 10 venues plan to resume operations in August, September or October, with some saying they may wait even later. Pubs in particular have voiced their frustration over the Government’s failure to provide the industry with adequate notice to reopen their sites.
Industry chiefs had warned that pubs needed at least three weeks’ notice, but with the announcement made by Johnson only last week, the sector has been given just 10 days to prepare. Pub chain Young’s has delayed reopening its 276 sites until July 20, while Shepherd Neame expects to have around two thirds of its 308 watering holes open for business by the end of July.
For businesses like Baloo’s, it will be a case of riding out the uncertainty until the Government comes forward with more clarity.
“It would be devastating if we can’t open anytime soon. We’ve got a pot of money in the bank but when that goes we’re kind of stuck,” Coombs says.
“It’s a troubling time for everyone involved. With good old British resilience hopefully we’ll bounce back and rise up from it all.”
Gymnasiums, nail bars and children’s soft play centres, main picture, will have to remain closed, while pubs, below, begin to welcome back customers