Step back in time, way back, to a different world and a different life … about mid-January 2020. In York, the city’s tourism chiefs were developing a strategy for it to become a £1bn industry by 2025, not bad for a city of around 200,000. But on 29 January two guests at the Staycity Hotel just outside the city walls became the first Covid-19 infection cases in the UK.
I remember it well: I was with friends in the Phoenix pub not 200m away and we were joking about The Daily Mail’s report, Coronavirus panic hits York. The closest to panic came when last orders were called. Worldwide the death toll was barely 170, about the same number that die every hour on the planet’s roads.
As we approach the end of the year, the mood is different. With more than 1.3 million deaths worldwide, York bears the scars of the virus as much as anywhere in the UK. The annual influx of cash from visitors has slowed to a trickle. In March 2018, I reported that the city’s premier shopping district, Coney Street, was suffering like high streets all over Britain with 20% of outlets empty. Now it has hit 30%.
Even the out-of-town sites around York are suffering, with up to a third of lots unoccupied. Big attractions have taken catastrophic financial blows: the Minster, one of Europe’s greatest architectural treasures, has lost most of its annual £6m revenue from tourists and is heading towards a £5.2m deficit for 2020. The situation is equally perilous for smaller businesses: bars, pubs, restaurants and cafes. When the second national lockdown ends on 2 December, what comes next is profoundly important, not only for York, but for all tourism centres around the country.
Sarah Lakin, who co-owns the Ice Cream Factory brewery and two bars in the city, Micklegate Social and Fossgate Social, is frank about how the year has gone: “It’s been pretty terrible. I mean the very word ‘social’ now has negative connotations,” she says.
Her bars were closed for five months, then reopened, only to get closed down again. During the first lockdown the bars were refitted and changes made to upgrade signs and sanitation, but this time the changes are different: “We’re being more pragmatic and less hopeful: minimising stock and potential wastage, trying to reach out to locals to get them to risk a visit!”
Just down the road, alongside the River Ouse, the quayside is normally busy with visitors boarding river cruises, but not this year.
“We’re down from over 178,000 passengers in 2019 to under 80,000 this year,” says City Cruises marketing manager, Mark Mattinson, “It’s been challenging. We lost February to floods and then only got two weeks before we were closed down again.”
For sisters Maria and Sophie Scott, who run the Parisi boutique hotel, the year has been a disaster. After a brilliant few years, winning awards and steaming to the top of the ratings for the city’s accommodation, their recipe of personalised service, high-quality local suppliers and high occupancy rates has not been able to continue. “Reopening just has not been economically viable for us,” says Sophie. “We’ve decided to wait until the virus is fully suppressed.”
I was getting depressed and losing hope. But then I decided to put two fingers up to Covid
Simon Cowton, hotelier
Hotelier Simon Cowton had a similar experience of falling into the abyss with two small hotels, 23 St Mary’s and St George’s Hotel. “I was getting depressed and losing hope,” he says. “But then I decided to put two fingers up to Covid.”
Cowton took out a loan and is nearing completion on an ambitious Covid-proof “glass garden” at St George’s, near York racecourse: eight hexagonal glass, wood and stone structures arranged around a huge firepit inside a walled garden, complete with outdoor kitchen and wood-fired pizza oven. “The project has been just what I needed,” he says, “And I won’t be making any of my staff redundant.”
Other hospitality and tourism businesses are going through a similar cycle of reversal, then fight back. Restaurateur Florencia Clifford describes the week before the March lockdown as “the worst of my life”. Her restaurant, Partisan, had been building a reputation for innovative cooking and bohemian atmosphere before the virus struck. Post-lockdown 1, it managed to reopen with reduced hours and staff. “It gave me time to reconnect with my cooking,” she says. “I’m hoping that small high-quality places are going to survive. York does have a lot of them and the owners are creative and adaptable.”
Even some big attractions have found unexpected bonuses. Jorvik Viking Centre normally hosts up to 420,000 visitors a year. “Covid gave us the opportunity to streamline the movement of visitors through the building,” says Jay Commins, marketing manager.
“Now everyone has plenty of time to spend in the sections that interest them.” She laughs: “And that includes admiring the world-famous fossilised poo without others crowding around the case.”
Lockdown drove us to team up and start a new partnership
Sarah Lakin, brewer and bar owner
Back at Micklegate Social, Lakin has also seen benefits. “At the first lockdown we found ourselves with brewing equipment but no brewer. A friend, James, from Another Beer, was a brewer without equipment. Lockdown drove us to team up and start a new partnership. Without the pandemic that would never have happened – we were too busy!” Now they have bought a canning machine and are hoping to reopen on 3 December.
At York’s bouldering wall, Red Goat Climbing, the virus looked like a deadly threat: lots of people breathing hard in close proximity, chalk dust drifting in the air, handholds shared by all. But the lockdowns have given owner Adam Exley a chance to re-evaluate. “It made me focus on how people move around the space. We rebuilt to allow better circulation of air and people.”
Online booking and limited numbers have also reduced the stress for staff, says Exley. Now a second lockdown has given time to expand the climbing areas and open a pizza oven.
“I’m 100% confident that things are going to be OK,” says Exley. “But we do need to open on 3 December.” That is a proviso that many people mention: there is no room for further restrictions. The extended closures have allowed some re-evaluations and rebuilding, but for many small tourism-dependent businesses, reopening before Christmas is vital.
Standing outside her Micklegate restaurant, Partisan, Clifford laughs about the question of unexpected benefits from the pandemic. “I started growing lots of flowers and somehow that made me and my partner Hugo think about getting married. So we did: quietly. Without the pandemic we would never have got around to it!”