For small businesses like ours, social distancing could be a nightmare

My husband and I run a quirky, colourful music bar in Hereford. The past four months have been been traumatic, as they have for many who run small businesses up and down the country. While many are already talking of the “post-Covid-19” economy, that feels like a far-off prospect when we seem to be treading a path through a Covid-19 labyrinth.

We bought the lease of a building and opened Babar Cafe in November 2018. We had run a London pub many years ago and, while we both moved into other jobs, we continued to put on club nights. One of those became a success, and a dormant seed germinated as we kept one eye open for a venue. The right building came on the market at the same time as we were selling a flat we had done up.

Times had changed since the late 1990s – and running a small business presented many challenges. The first year was such hard work, but we soon had supportive and passionate customers. With the help of local promoters we put on bands and a wonderful array of DJs: on weekend nights , the place was filled with dancing, and there was love and hugs everywhere.

Even though we were busy, the cost of running a small business is high – and the hardest challenge  was making a profit. We had just got on top of this when Covid-19 skulked into view. On 12 March, we became so panicked about potentially spreading and catching the virus that we closed our doors.

Following closure, we cut outgoings by sending in meter readings to forestall estimated electric bills, stopping rubbish collections – and anything else we could think of. We called our insurance company, who refused both a claim for business interruption and to reduce our premium while we were closed.

We contacted our landlord and, after months of negotiation, he agreed to reduce our rent to half until social distancing is no longer required, or to the end of April 2021. This has been the difference between us wanting to throw in the towel and finding the will to keep going. 

Financial help from the government has also worked out well. We received the £10,000 grant from our local authority as part of the small business scheme announced by the chancellor shortly before lockdown. The application was easy to access online, where HMRC and Companies House already hold facts and figures. That enabled us to clear outstanding debts, including for wasting kegs, and provide a brief buffer. I furloughed staff, including my husband, whom we paid a low PAYE wage. I had not yet drawn a wage from the business but was furloughed from an additional part-time job.

Throughout lockdown, the thought of how the future will play out for our bar has been causing me real stress. I have felt defeated one day and warrior-like the next; but the reality is that social distancing is a nightmare for small venues because with the number of customers we’ll be allowed to take in, it’ll cost more to keep the place open than we could possibly turn over.

When our licensing authority gives us the go-ahead, we plan to initially open for bubble-group bookings only. That means private zones (front or back, each of which have their own entrance) for guests to have a day or night out with their social group and little risk of stranger contact. Social distancing within groups is still required, so there are issues to contend with – but the idea is that people can socialise within a shielded environment.

If there are not enough bookings to provide us with an income or meet venue costs, we will be up the creek. With that in mind, we are preparing to stay above the bar – and ready our little house across the border in south Wales for holiday rental. We hope the allure of a whole house near a mountaintop will help see us through to the end of social distancing. However, that cannot happen until Wales opens its borders to visitors. Today, on the road from Hereford, the graffitied addendum to the Wales sign says “Sorry we’re closed”.

Without certainty in any direction – being furloughed provides an interlude where wages are paid, but with no future guarantee – it is a confusing time. Focus shifts daily, with our priorities constantly evolving. While others struggle with isolation-based mental health issues, our minds are bombarded with thoughts of how to make this work. A small bar might not seem like the most important of priorities right now, but it is independent venues, shops and storefronts like ours that give life to towns and cities. Nights to remember, evenings out with friends – where the worries of the day can melt away. Keep your fingers crossed for us.

Ally Hardy runs Babar Cafe in Hereford, England

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