Small firms in the City of London have spent the summer in lockdown trying to survive and adapt to the government’s coronavirus regulations.
Pubs, shoe repair shops, barbers, dry cleaners and cafes have battled to survive the initial forced closure during lockdown, followed by a sharp decline in City footfall as most office workers remained at home.
While the streets of the Square Mile are far from full, workers have tentatively begun returning to the office and signs of life have started to return.
But with London entering a tier 2 lockdown from Saturday morning – which will prohibit different households from mixings – and City workers resuming their remote-working routines, many Square Mile firms are now worrying how they will survive this second wave of restrictions – and the threat of an even harsher clamp down.
“We have had the rug pulled out from under us”
Matt Grece Smith, co-chief executive of Competitive Socialising, which owns Swingers crazy golf venues, says he is “frustrated” that the government is targeting hospitality after firms have spent the summer implementing Covid-19 safety measures.
The firm, which relies on groups of friends and corporate events for its main income, has already faced a “barrage” of cancellations since the government announced London’s move into tier 2 restrictions today.
Swingers, which has a site near the Gherkin as well as one in the West End, has already made 75 people redundant since the beginning of the pandemic.
When asked whether more job cuts were inevitable following the clampdown on socialising, Smith admits:”We don’t know yet, we have to wait and see.”
“We’re already fielding a barrage of people wanting to cancel their bookings, because they were groups of different households. It is really frustrating.”
“We were kind of getting to a place where it was sustainable, and once again we have had the rug pulled out from under our feet, with 36 hours notice” he says.
“It feels like you are working against the government, they should be trying to support businesses.”
“It will finish us off”
“It’s been a struggle since we reopened,” Tony Gower, who has worked at Michael’s Shoe Care in Lime Street for almost three years, tells City A.M.
“What we’re taking in a week here is probably what we’d be taking in a day, it’s no good at all.”
The new London lockdown restrictions will affect pubs and restaurants more but more people resuming working from home will have a knock on effect, he says.
“It’s not good times. The new furlough scheme isn’t enough. It’s probably going to finish us off.”
“The City is empty”
Eduardo Pereira, manager at Square Mile cafe Cheese and Peppers, says trading has been “rubbish” since reopening after the first lockdown.
“With all these restrictions coming into London, it’s almost impossible to keep the business open,” he says.
“The government have made people work from home, and this kind of business, if you don’t have people working in an office, we can’t survive with just builders.”
Pereira, who has worked at the Eastcheap sandwich shop for 12 years, adds that the congestion charge extension has forced the business to close on Sundays, when construction workers would have been the main customers.
“But now in the middle of the pandemic they decide to make it 24/7, so nobody comes into the City on a weekend. As you can see even now, the City is completely empty.”
“We are still trying to survive until we can’t,” he says.
The company is using the furlough scheme, but Pereira said he didn’t know whether the cafe will be forced to cut staff when the funding ends.
“Before the pandemic we were fantastic, plenty busy, no reason to complain,” he says.
“But now the City is empty. All the big companies, they survive, but not the little ones.”
“London is the best city in the world”
Mick Aynge, the landlord of The Grapes in Lime Street, sounds a more positive note than some other Square Mile small firms.
The pub – which before the pandemic would have City workers spilling out onto the pavement each night – has been dramatically affected by the lockdown, with turnover down around 30 to 40 per cent.
However, despite the fact that more of The Grape’s City punters will resume working from home as restrictions are tightened, he is optimistic that the pub will make it through the crisis.
The pub is looking into doing takeaway food and drink if London is forced into tier 3 restrictions, although The Grapes would be allowed to stay open as it serves meals.
“Whether it will be worth staying open, we’ll look into that,” he said.
Aynge admits that the current crisis has been worse for business than the financial crash but is resolute that the Grapes, which he has run for 14 years, will make it through.
“It is what it is, we’ve got to deal with it.” he says.
“All I want is people just to obey the rules, if we do we might get away with it in London.
“London is the best city in the world, to live in and to work in. The City of London particularly, it’s a very special place and it will come through.”