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’

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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

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