As Wales continues to emerge from lockdown – or what some fear will be a first lockdown – pubs, clubs, restaurants and hotels are beginning to emerge from the mire.
Some have already re-opened while some are gearing up to welcome back customers for the first time since March. You can read more on the types of preparations taken by some venues here.
With two-metre social distancing guidelines still in place throughout Wales the challenges are obvious. A reduction to one metre would undoubtedly help but for some businesses who offered respite for the people of Wales and beyond it is already too late.
“Covid-19 has had a crippling effect on our business,” revealed Huw and Beth Roberts, owners of the Gwesty Cymru hotel, which overlooks the sea in Aberystwyth, this week.
Last October, when few were aware of the word ‘coronavirus’, the hotel, home to a five-star restaurant, scooped the Best Guest Accommodation gong at the Mid Wales Tourism Awards.
Ten months later it’s gone. Closed. Permanently.
The ripple effect of the pandemic, and the timing of its arrival on these shores, saw to that. It took 13 years to build the business – it took less than five months to shut it down.
“We have always been dependent on spring and summer trade to sustain the business through the winter months,” the hotel’s owners confirmed on Wednesday.
“Half of our annual turnover has been lost between April and July alone. We have exhausted all possible scenarios in an attempt to ensure that the business survived, recovered, and traded profitably again.”
But, they continued, “the combination of lost income, reduced future turnover and considerable outstanding debts on top of ongoing costs make it impossible for the business to operate in a profitable manner. We are heartbroken and so sorry that it has come to this.”
Some pubs have gone in Aberystwyth too. The Fountain Inn closed in April and the New Cross Inn went the same way even though it had only been open since 2018.
The Academy, a large town centre pub in Great Darkgate Street, has not been available for comment but has recently had a sign outside advertising it as being for rent.
At one popular town centre nightspot they are still intending to re-open – but not yet.
Rummers Bar sits in Bridge Street overlooking the Afon Rheidol. The former boathouse and theatre building dates back to the 18th century and now attract swathes of Aberystwyth’s student population with live music, DJs, food, and drink. Or it did, at least.
“I love Aberystwyth,” said Marcus Sedghi, the bar’s owner. “I’m from the Midlands originally but I was a student here. I’m 37 now and I’ve been coming to Aberystwyth for 37 years.
“I used to come to Rummers Bar when I was in uni so when the chance came along to buy it in 2018 I took it. We were doing really well and we’d made the bar into what I remembered it – it was like the place I used to come to all those years ago.”
But then, of course, everything changed in March.
“We closed before the actual lockdown because I didn’t think it was responsible to stay open.
“I don’t have a re-opening day in my mind yet. I thought about it in July, then I thought maybe mid-August, but I don’t know.
“At this stage I’m tempted to say we’ll open on New Year’s Eve!”
Marcus will continue to play it by ear in terms of when Rummers will make its comeback from lockdown. Whether that will be in time for the new university term (a time when the population of Aberystwyth normally swells by about 7,000) is still uncertain.
“We will open when we are ready – I want to be responsible,” he said. “I won’t open until everyone has had the right training and we are ready to do so. You see some pubs that have lots of room and big open spaces but Wales is full of little pubs which have little nooks and crannies so what are we supposed to do?
“I would like to make the bar more open-plan inside. We have explored whether we can open with the two-metre guidelines in place and I think we can but the bottom line is I’m not prepared to take the risk.
“I don’t think people see how long this situation could last – it might be two years. We are probably the most popular place in town for students but people are asking about Freshers’ Week and I’m just shaking my head.
“It’s a difficult time. My staff here have done nothing wrong – they’re just unlucky to be in the wrong industry at the moment. We haven’t done any trade since lockdown, not even takeaway food. We had just changed our menu which was very popular and I’ve been asked by people ‘why don’t you do takeaways?’. I’m fortunate enough to own the building outright so I thought it was better to support the local takeaway venues and the cafes who just do food.
“I have taken this time to re-do flats which are a part of the building itself so I have had some income from that. As for the bar we could be ready to open within a week but I just want more reassurance that it’s going to be safe. This is a tourist town and, to be honest, a lot of people don’t realise that the rules are different in Wales.”
One way in which England and Wales continue to tackle the recovery from a coronavirus lockdown differently is seen in the respective government’s guidelines on social distancing.
England employs the one-metre plus rule while in Wales people continue to be told to adhere to the two-metre rule. That could encourage students, and revellers in general, to go underground, or suburban at least, when it comes to letting their hair down when term starts.
“The worry is that students might go to house parties and have gatherings that are not within the guidelines and we might end up seeing a lot more raves because as it is you can’t put on your normal student nights,” said Marcus.
“People go to clubs and bars because they want to be close to people but at the moment you’ll have to be in a club six feet away from the person next to you.”
With the situation regularly changing both in Wales and throughout the UK, new dilemmas are thrown up almost every week and they bring with them some tough decisions. How long will Rummers be able to stay closed for without dusting off the bar, opening the tills, and welcoming back punters eager to be a part of it again?
Marcus said: “It (that decision) is coming close. If this carries on for much longer we will have to look at it in terms of maybe turning the place into something else, which will be a huge shame: there’s been live music at Rummers for 30 years. Like everyone else we’re part of a waiting game.
“But we’ve all worked so hard in this county to keep Covid-19 at bay and I don’t want to waste all that hard work just to put some money in my back pocket.”
Councillor Alun Williams lives in Aberystwyth and is a member of both the town council and Ceredigion council.
He believes shops and restaurants have adapted well to the new way of life in recent weeks and hopes that pubs and nightspots will be able to follow suit when they re-open in the coming days and weeks.
“It’s been a massive challenge in Aberystwyth but I do think that so far it’s been a success story in the way that local businesses have really stepped up to the plate and found ways to keep going by adapting their business models,” said Mr Williams.
“That’s been fantastic to see. The county council has introduced ‘safe zones’ in the town centre which have enabled pedestrians to socially distance while giving local businesses an opportunity to expand out onto the pavements so we have seen the creation of a more European-style outdoor culture. Obviously that is weather-dependent but at the moment it’s great to see people outside enjoying themselves.
“Despite the difficulties the whole thing has been a success and pubs can be a part of the ‘safe zones’ as well, with bars able to expand out into the road safely.”
As a resident of the town Cllr Williams admitted it was strange to see the streets deserted and everything closed up, particularly during term time earlier this year when Aberystwyth would normally be bustling with student activity.
“In the early stages of lockdown the town was dead but it was supposed to be dead,” he said.
“Now we are seeing it being a more lively place. Up until now it hasn’t been like that in the evenings but there’s nothing that anyone could have done to help that.
“There are distancing rules in place and a lot of pubs are dependent on packing in as many people as possible. Moving forward it may be that they can’t continue with the model that they had previously, they will have to change. Some will be able to cope and others will not so that is a concern.”
Nobody knows yet what will happen in the coming weeks. Will pubs manage to drive enough business and earn enough revenue when they have to adhere to two-metre social distancing guidelines inside?
Will it put off customers or will the pull of a pint inside their favourite local draw them back in to boost the local pub trade?
Mr Williams hopes that it can be a bright and prosperous time ahead for Aberystwyth’s pubs, despite the obvious challenges that await.
“We are not out of the woods yet with Covid-19 and I don’t think anyone is thinking about getting back to normal anytime soon,” he said.
“My hope is that local businesses who have come up with new ways to thrive will continue to do so. We have seen a resurgence in local businesses doing well and my hope is that we will see a thriving local economy in the town.
“But students are a terribly important part of that. The economy needs students to be actually living in the area (as opposed to learning remotely), there is no question about that.”
See how traders in Aberystwyth have coped with lockdown:
Aberystwyth University believes the town has worked hard to make itself a safe and welcoming place when those students do return in the coming weeks.
“We are very fortunate, as are our students, to have such a close, supportive and vibrant community here,” said Rhodri Llwyd Morgan, director of Welsh language and external engagement at Aberystwyth University.
“Despite challenges that have been created for all communities by the Covid-19 crisis it is wonderful to see how people have pulled together to re-open the centre of town in this new environment. It is already clear that students will return to an area which is geared up to welcome new faces and returning students alike.
“At Aberystwyth University we are working with other local partners to adapt what we do so that our students can get the high-quality experience for which we have become well known. Safety of students, staff, and the wider community is central to all we’re doing and it is great to see similar approaches driving the wide range of social experiences and activities available in town and throughout the area.”
As with everything related to Covid-19 we can contemplate what has been and learn from it but we cannot see or predict what is to come.
That is especially true of the nightlife in many towns and none more so than in Aberystwyth, where, for the town as a whole to prosper, students and young people are needed just as much in the pubs and the clubs as they are in the lecture halls and the libraries.