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Coronavirus: 'Thousands came to Bournemouth but the town was dead'

By Hazel Shearing
BBC News

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When Neelam Kumari heard that thousands of people were flocking to Bournemouth beach last month, she thought it could be good for business. Now, standing behind a Perspex screen in a phone accessories and repairs shop in the town centre, she shakes her head.

"Half a million people turned up… but the town was dead," she says.

Shops in the Dorset town's centre have spent years competing with online retailers and alternative shopping hubs with free parking. Bubble tea cafes and brunch spots have sprung up in place of some that have folded. Now, many shops, restaurants and bars find themselves grappling with the additional challenges posed by coronavirus - and there are fears it could be the "nail in the coffin" for some businesses.

Neelam, keeping half an eye on the one customer perusing a display of iPad cases, says the shop is a lot quieter than it was this time last year. She thinks more people have become used to online shopping during lockdown, while students, who make up the majority of their trade, haven't been in since the university closed. People come to the high street for a day out, not to spend, she says.

image captionNeelam Kumari says the collapse of nearby phone shops means fewer people coming in to buy accessories

"A lot of them do say 'we're waiting to get back into work to get a proper wage to then have that money'. So we're hopeful… but it's a waiting game."

The shutters on the jewellers opposite have been down since March. A few doors down, the windows of the M&S I was dragged around by my nan as a child have been boarded up for two years.

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It's a warm Saturday and there are lots of people about. But, if I think about it, not as many as there would usually be at this time of year.

Outside Clarks, where I spent my weekends fitting kids' shoes as a teenager, taxi drivers Steve Cox and Phil Zamora are waiting for their next clients. It's around 3pm and Phil has only had three jobs all day. Steve says the station hasn't been much better.

image captionSteve Cox says the days that thousands flocked to Bournemouth beach were his busiest since lockdown - but many brought their own cars

"It's about two to three hours waiting and when the trains are coming in there's nobody on them," he says. "It's not worth coming, we come out because that's what we do."

Phil works day shifts but the closure of nightclubs has had a knock-on effect.

"These guys that work nights, because there's no work, they come out in the daytime now. It now dilutes the work," he says.

In the square, Laura Dickie is handing out flyers for her new discount designer clothing pop-up. She is upbeat, noting that the furlough scheme means weekdays are just as busy as weekends and discounts have become even more appealing.

image captionLaura Dickie says she has had a positive reaction to her new designer discount pop-up

"Because people want that bargain, they're happy to spend the money. They still want the designer names and the designer brands," she shrugs.

On the other side of town, Carol and Ben Coulston are sat on a bench in a newly-pedestrianised area outside Beales, which folded in March. They normally come to town to shop and socialise but many of their elderly friends are staying away because of coronavirus.

Carol reckons around a dozen shops are empty on this street, while some businesses that collapsed have been replaced by lunch spots. A sushi shop and an ice-cream parlour opposite used to be Clintons Cards and Jones Bootmaker.

"General shopping, there seems to be less and less," says Ben. "If you need to get a pair of boot laces you can't get them. You can get a sandwich anywhere."

image captionBen and Carol Coulston think coronavirus has exacerbated existing problems for the high street

'A tough fight'

Bournemouth is reflective of a broader shift to hospitality in town centres, says Rod Cake, a director on the Bournemouth Town Centre Business Improvement District (BID). He believes that drinks venues, like his own sports bar, will see a resurgence in spending eventually - especially with the European Football Championship and World Cup not far off the horizon - but he's concerned for shops.

According to the BID's most recent survey, just 13% of visitors thought the shops were "excellent" in 2018 - a fall from 27% in 2011. Yet 41% gave Bournemouth's restaurants the highest rating. The biggest turn-offs among visitors was the number people sleeping rough (64%) and the cost of parking (59%). There is a shopping centre a short drive away with free parking.

To boost the town centre, the BID has launched a "spend local, stay local" campaign, and has promoted town centre gift cards but Rod Cake says it is hard to make plans amid the uncertainty.

"It's going to be a tough fight. I think it was a tough industry before coronavirus," he says, adding that the pandemic will be a "final nail in the coffin" for some shops.

image captionThere are a string of 'to let' signs in one part of the town centre

But even some dining hubs are struggling. In the relatively new Bh2 complex, home to an Odeon cinema and a string of chain restaurants, a group of holidaymakers from Hastings are assessing their dinner options. Pizza Express? Closed. Handmade Burger Co.? Closed. Even the ice-cream stand is closed and it's 20°C outside.

Those food venues that rely on office workers have been hit especially hard. Just outside of the town centre, in an Italian brasserie situated near several insurance companies, Hassan and Tracy Sefat say they would serve about 50 people on a weekday before the pandemic - but now it's just one or two.

"We've got the outside area, but they're not here. They get the money on furlough and they say, 'I'm not taking a risk'," Hassan says, adding that bosses should ask employees to come back to the office.

"They have to come out and… give to local people's businesses for them to survive."

image captionLunch spots have replaced shops that went under

'Hopefully we'll survive'

The Sefats' restaurant has also been hit by a fall in wedding parties, as well as stag and hen dos. Clubbing is one of the things Bournemouth is best known for, after all. Outside a string of shuttered-up clubs and closed chicken shops, a group of men in their early 20s walk past reminiscing about pre-lockdown nights out. Usually, a few hours from now, this place would be heaving. But Alan Dove, another director on the BID, says late-night venues are "on their knees".

"What they need is clarity, assistance with fixed costs and VAT relief when they open to rebuild business reserves and customer confidence. If these things don't happen they will close," he says.

The drinking venues that have been able to reopen are having to adapt to survive. Peter Hector only opened his micro-pub on the outskirts of town three years ago, and was just starting to break even when the pandemic hit. Now he's buying in cans and bottles for takeaways, and has launched an app for customers to place orders.

image captionPeter Hector is planning to open up a bottle shop downstairs in his micro-pub

His takings on Friday night were down around 40% on this time last year - and extra precautions such as Perspex screens on tables have cost him hundreds.

"Hopefully we will survive, but I don't know," he says.

"I think when the winter comes that is going to be the test. If we do get a second spike it will finish off a lot of small businesses."

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