Liverpool has many charms, said Iain Hoskins, a bar operator. “But it’s not Ibiza.” From next Monday he will open outdoor seating at Ma Boyle’s, his Merseyside “alehouse and eatery”, followed by the roof terrace at Tempest on Tithebarn, his new bar in the central business district.
Whether he will be able to make any money from these alfresco operations is another matter entirely. “If it rains all day, what do you do: stay open and hope that it will clear, or cancel the bookings you’ve got?” As he was talking, an icy wind whipped across the Mersey. It was 5 April and he had woken up to snow.
Across England, the countdown has begun to the next stage of lockdown easing. From Monday all non-essential retail can open along with hairdressers and nail salons, gyms and zoos, campsites and self-catering cottages, Boris Johnson has confirmed.
Reopening carries risks for everyone, but it is the hospitality industry that arguably has the most to lose. However hardy (and thirsty) the English consider themselves, there are a limited number of people prepared to eat a pub lunch in the driving rain.
Unlike shops, bars and restaurants must keep customers outside until mid-May at the earliest – unless two of the biggest names in the industry win a legal case against the government later this week.
Hugh Osmond, a former Pizza Express director, and Sacha Lord, a nightclub and festival operator who is also the Greater Manchester night-time economy adviser, have gone to the high court to argue there is no scientific reason for allowing people to shop indoors but not eat and drink inside. A judge has ordered the health secretary, Matt Hancock, to respond by Tuesday.
If they lose and the indoor prohibition remains, make space in your Covid dictionary for another new entry: the “sunshine shift”, a post-plague play on the zero-hours contract, in which hospitality workers are guaranteed work only when the sun is out.
Sunshine shifts will be a reality for bar and waiting staff working at Liverpool venues owned by Natalie Haywood’s Leaf Group. She is emerging from the pandemic with five venues, two fewer than she started it with, and is resigned to probably operating at a loss until she can open up indoors.
“I know from past experience of the British summer that you don’t really make any money trading outdoors,” she said. “You can if there’s an absolute heatwave and you’re guaranteed the weather, but at this time of year it’s a bit of a gamble.”
Haywood has spent £60,000 on parasols to keep customers dry and says she spent £170,000 mothballing one venue, Oh Me, Oh My. She has decided not to take bookings at all, giving her the flexibility to stay shut on foul days. “We’re making everything as weather-proof as possible and introducing sunshine shifts. You need to know that you’ve got people who can come in if the weather is good but not come in if it’s bad,” she said. “They’d get the furlough payment if they don’t come in but will get topped up if they do.”
Many councils, including Liverpool, have made it easier for cafes and restaurants to spill into the street, taking over parking bays for customer seating. Cadogan, a private company that owns and manages more than 90 acres across Chelsea and Knightsbridge in west London, has added more than 500 alfresco seats across the neighbourhood and has pushed through the permanent pedestrianisation of Pavilion Road, a small street offering artisan food, beauty, fashion and restaurants.
For some people, having a haircut will take priority over a pub-pulled pint on Monday. Andrew Moorhouse is planning to work seven days a week to get through his list of clients, operating half from a salon in Bradford and half from his home in Manchester, which he has made Covid-secure.
“I’ve been inundated with calls and texts and I’m a bit daunted,” he admitted. He knows from the last two lockdowns that much of the first few weeks will be spent correcting dodgy home dye jobs and levelling fringes. Every appointment takes longer because no one only needs a trim, he said. “Each job is like a full restyle. Last time I saw people who’d cut fringes halfway up their foreheads and people with highlights who decided to bleach their entire hair who ended up with yellow, brassy roots.”
The closest he has come to cutting hair since Christmas has been directing a neighbour over the fence as she cut her girlfriend’s hair, averting DIY disaster by shouting instructions. Moorhouse hasn’t earned a penny all year and is frustrated that the government’s self-employment grants are paid in arrears rather than upfront. “A lot of people don’t have savings. One girl I work with had to go to a food bank during the first lockdown,” he said.
In Heysham, near Morecambe, on the Lancastrian coast, Shaun Pellett, AKA “the transformation trainer”, is looking forward to reopening his gym on Monday. He only started it in August and has been closed more than open. It was supposed to be a companion operation to his food preparation business, but that took a hammering as soon as the first lockdown began, the list of regular clients plunging from 36 a week to just nine. Suddenly, everyone had time to prepare their own meals at home and many could no longer afford the luxury of someone else doing the shopping and chopping.
Missing out on January has been a huge blow for the gym, said Pellett. “That’s when most gyms do their best business, at the start of the year when everyone has good intentions.” At times it was frustrating to see what could reopen – “why can you go to a garden centre but not a gym?” – but he could see the logic, having some clients who own care homes and others shielding for health reasons. He is excited to open his doors at 6am on Monday and put clients through their paces on the “squat rack” he bought with a small government grant he received for the gym.
Back in Liverpool, Hoskins looks forward to reopening on what he calls the “cautious, tippy-toe back to normality”. He hopes his customers will not push the rules. “I think people need to take a really common-sense, sensible approach because no one wants this snatched back from us again.”