A Tour of the City of London Says Reopening Will Be No Big Bang
(Bloomberg) -- For months, the ancient byways and cobbled alleyways of the City of London have been eerily silent. With the vast majority of the Square Mile’s 500,000 office staff working from home during the pandemic, once-bustling streets have been largely deserted.
For the newsagents, bars and other small businesses that rely on office workers for their passing trade, the last 16 months have been nothing short of a nightmare. For them, the government’s decision to lift the last Covid-related restrictions on people’s movement from Monday couldn’t have come soon enough.
But they don’t expect customers to return in the same numbers as they once did—at least for now. Many people are preparing to take summer vacations, while others may delay their return until September as cases of the virus surge. And there’s a nagging fear that as more people choose to work at least part of the week from home, business may never return to what it was like before Covid.
Bloomberg spoke to six businesses to see how the pandemic changed them.
The Restaurateur: “It Was Pointless to Open”
Sweetings, London’s oldest fish restaurant, is an institution beloved by City workers. Its long-time owner, Richard Barfoot, died in September 2019, just before the pandemic hit.
“We had six months of running it as dad had—then we had the first lockdown,” said Sue Knowler, Barfoot’s daughter, who now runs the place. “We didn’t reopen until September 2020. Despite the fact we could have opened earlier, I didn’t see anyone around. I thought it was pointless to open.”
Her team has had to get used to shutting down and opening up again and now carries a reduced amount of stock just in case they have to close suddenly again. Social-distancing rules mean the restaurant can’t have a dedicated server for each counter—something that has removed a unique selling point and changed the atmosphere, Knowler says.
As workers tentatively return to the office for only a few days a week, the beat and tick of Sweetings’s week has subtly changed. Take Friday lunchtime.
“Friday used to be chock-a-block—you knew that was the day you had to have your running shoes on,” Knowler said. “If I was to have a three-day working week, I’d definitely take a long weekend and have Monday off and Friday off.”
The Butcher: “It Was Like a Ghost Town”
Wesley Clements, 39, and his brother Scott run Porterford Butchers with their semi-retired dad Mick, who has been at its helm since 1982. At lunchtimes, the line outside their shop usually snakes out onto Watling Street, with City workers queuing up for a steak baguette.
To keep the business going through the lockdowns, the three men turned to making home deliveries. “When we were coming in, it was like a ghost town,” said Wesley.
Clements says he doesn’t expect the City will see a real return until after September, when children go back to school. Even then, he’s not sure if trade will be like it was before. But he’s hopeful that it doesn’t mean the end for businesses like his.
“I don’t think it’ll ever go back to what it was, if I’m honest—the City as a whole. But I think we’ll get somewhere close, close enough for us to still be here.”
The Tailor: “It Was Desolate”
MacAngus and Wainwright set up shop in the City in 2017 and was just beginning to secure a regular flow of clients when the pandemic hit. Co-owner Richard Wainwright, 54, said that when they first re-opened in July last year, they came back to an empty City.
“We were left here, allowed to open, but with no one to open to,” he recalls. “It was desolate.”
He says about a fifth of their clients are now back in the office and the firm is now branching out to take up costume work for films. But Wainwright, who worked on Savile Row straight after leaving school, doesn’t believe the pandemic will kill off his trade.
“I’ve done this for 37 years,” he said. “I’ve heard everyone say the suit is dead, nobody will wear a tie anymore. These things come and go. You might get a little blip.”
The Gym: “It May Take a Little While”
With exercise classes named “Badass” and “Bartendaz,” Gymbox’s branch on Lombard Street, a stone’s throw away from the Bank of England, is firmly pitched at millennial city types. But the rows of exercise bikes there are still quiet—unlike those at its other branches in the suburbs.
“If you look at our clubs in Elephant and Castle or Ealing, for example, it’s been a lot quicker,” said David Cooper, director of Gymbox.
During the pandemic, the company introduced deep cleans, fancy bacterial wipes, and limited the use of saunas—measures Cooper thinks will stay in place long after the Covid-19 rules are all but scrapped on July 19.
With August “notoriously quiet” in the gym industry, Cooper says it won’t be until September that business returns. “My gut is the City will come,” he said. “But it may take a little while.”
The Newsagent: “They assume we’ve got loads of money”
Satyam Patel’s family has run the newsagent on the corner of Bow Lane and Groveland Court for 38 years. Overnight, the pandemic wiped out most of its trade.
“It’s been terrible,” said Patel. “Trade even now is only 10% of what it used to be. During the lockdowns it was about 2%. You just don’t know when it’s going to come back. It’s not going to be like a light switch where you just flick the switch and everyone comes back to work.”
Deemed an essential business, the newsagent wasn’t ordered to close during the lockdown. But Patel, 52, says that meant he was unable to qualify for government grants.
“They assume we’ve got loads of money tucked away somewhere—we haven’t,” Patel said. “Retail isn’t that lucrative. People assume that it is, but believe me it’s not.”
The Bar: “Wednesday Nights are the New Friday Nights”
At the Fortnum’s Bar and Restaurant at the Royal Exchange, an offshoot of the three-century-old Piccadilly retailer, customers’ habits are changing.
Social-distancing rules spelled the end of serving food at the counter and forced customers to make reservations long in advance. With more people choosing to stay away from the City at the end of the week, Friday nights are no longer as busy.
“Wednesday nights are the new Friday nights,” said Simon Thompson, Fortnum’s chief customer officer. For him, one of the biggest pluses of re-opening will be that people can be more spontaneous again.
He doesn't expect working from home to stay in place forever and has already started to see people return to the City.
“The longer this has gone on, people are realizing that the dream of working from home is great—to a level,” he said. “But actually having contact with your peers, team members, friends, is all part of the working week.”
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