The air is thick with a smell of paint and tool boxes are piled on the floor inside Cutting Edge Hair Design in Old Harlow, Essex.
Owner Emma Stillwell, 37, decided to use the forced closure during the last lockdown to spruce up her hair salon in the historic part of the suburban town of Essex. A new sign was installed outside and she raced to complete the renovation before reopening the doors on Monday morning.
“I can’t wait to get home and my staff have climbed the walls. They are so bored, they even cut the hair on the heads of the dolls at home, ”Stillwell said.
The datebook is ‘chocka’ through May, with customers desperate for a cut or color, while Stillwell herself is booked through June. She’s not worried that business will slow down after an initial surge.
“We’ve been here for 20 years, due to recessions. We have a good customer base, and everyone who comes can’t come in two weeks – we had to spread it out. The fact that they’ll be able to go to a restaurant or pub means they’ll want to get their hair done, ”Stillwell said.
At the florist business she owns next door, The Flower Box, trading continued during the lockdown, but behind closed doors.
“Tragically, we were busy with the funeral, but we tried to make the most of it,” Stillwell said, adding that some customers were upset that the Covid restrictions only allowed one service from collection and prevented them from visiting the store to choose flowers for the parents’ funeral.
Ahead of the grand reopening of non-essential retail, personal care businesses and outdoor hospitality on April 12, much of the pedestrianized street remained in hibernation when the Observer visited. Staff were organizing supplies behind the locked door of the Sue Ryder charity shop, but the wooden shutters were closed at the Marquis Lounge bar.
Dean Zambra will be removing the newspaper covering the D’n’G barber shop windows before Monday, but recent experience has taught him to be careful.
“Next week isn’t that bad for reservations, but the last time we came back we thought we would be packed for weeks, but that didn’t happen,” he said. declared. “I think we were 30 to 50% down. There are so many clients we haven’t seen and I don’t know why – whether they’re scared or their wives and girlfriends will. ”
Further down the main street of Old Harlow, Nel Amodei, 47, owner of Nel’s Cafe, also feels wary. She first opened the business in January 2020 and has been operating under some sort of restriction for most of the time.
“I survived, but I didn’t make any money. We ran out of attendance with everything closed, ”she said, adding that she had not received any rent reduction.
“There were times when I thought, ‘I’m going to plug it in, it’s not worth it’. But I put in too much time and effort. I wrote off the rest of the year and will see next year what this company can do under normal circumstances. “
Nel brought his two employees back from leave, bought outdoor tables and chairs, and stocked up on his refrigerators. But she is unsure whether customers will be willing to spend more once they can sit outside to eat and drink, noting that more and more people in Harlow, one of the most affordable suburban towns in London, have lost their jobs in recent months.
About 7,000 residents remained on leave in March, according to official figures, around 16% of the working-age population of the local government area, which has more than 87,000 people.
As the number of people on leave fell from the 17,000 seen last July, the city’s unemployment rate hovered around its current level of 8.5%, 2% above the national average, for the best part of the year. Before the pandemic, only 3.5% of Harlow’s population was out of work. In Greater Essex, more than 100,000 jobs are still supported by the government’s coronavirus job retention program.
Two regular customers of Nel’s Cafe, David Gradley and his wife Julie, eagerly await the further easing of Covid restrictions, when they can swap their take-out coffees for an al fresco meal. “It will be nice to be able to come and sit down and have breakfast next week. It depends on the weather, ”said David. “I would much rather support a local business than a large chain.”
A few miles away, in the new town of Harlow, the floors were mopped and final work was being finished before the official opening of the town’s JD Gym, operated by sportswear retailer JD Sports.
The site had been renovated and a spinning studio was added during the lockdown, said manager Jordan Powles, 25, since former gym owner Xercise4less was acquired by JD Sports last July.
Powles was convinced that an introductory offer of £ 5 for the first month would convince fitness enthusiasts to ditch their home workouts in favor of the gym facilities, before group classes could resume on May 17 .
“I imagine everyone will want to come and take a look,” said Powles. “There will be additional cleaning and a cleaner on site every hour while we are open. We ask members to train alone or with their home or bubble. “
Store staff were back at work in the city’s Harvey Center mall, restocking for Monday. “Loyal fans, thank you,” proclaimed a sign in the window of its Primark branch, as uniformed workers unload boxes inside.
The Harlow Mall, like many others around the country, has changed dramatically during the pandemic and some stores will never reopen. A store previously occupied by hire-purchase retailer BrightHouse, which collapsed into administration last March, was still vacant. Meanwhile, a former branch of Peacocks, which failed last November, was being redeveloped as a mobility aid retailer, but still carried the discount fashion chain’s brand on store windows.