by Colin Campbell
WHEN I went into the city centre last Monday on the first day of shops reopening I expected to see the streets busy and, even on a Monday, a fairly boisterous atmosphere about the place.
The Grand Reopening – a major turning point on the road back to some kind of normality, surely.
Instead, it was nothing like that.
There was some activity on High Street but most other streets were virtually empty. In fact much of the precinct barely looked different from its ghost-town appearance during lockdown. And on a sunny afternoon it was about as boisterous as a wet weekend in Wigan.
This genuinely surprised me. I’d thought that there would at least be a significant influx of people, either to buy, or out of a sense of curiosity to see what reopening day looked and felt like, or maybe just to share in a sense of relief that a major turning point had been reached.
This sent out an ominous signal that it will take more than a nod from Nicola Sturgeon to regain anything remotely approaching “normality”.
Ominous for pubs, restaurants and hotels.
Inverness pubs will be allowed to open outdoor beer gardens from Monday. A forecast week of rain lies ahead which, if accurate is bad news in itself.
But even if the forecast is wrong and we’re hit by a heatwave, how busy will the beer gardens be?
Pub owners understandably desperate to hear their tills rattling again have made elaborate preparations.
A few socially-distanced tables may be occupied. But it’s difficult to see any of these venues bearing any kind of resemblance to a Bavarian beer festival, now or any time in the weeks ahead.
The same goes for pubs. Pictures emerged over the weekend of revellers packing some streets in some places in England on pub reopening “Super Saturday”.
But that’s the kind of pictures the papers were looking for. Elsewhere, there were widespread reports of little or very little trade in pubs, with some being virtually empty.
How will pubs in Inverness fare when they fully reopen in the next couple of weeks? Everyone knows that considerations of “social distancing” will fall apart after after the first couple of pints have been sunk.
But will customers return in sufficient numbers to make that a problem? And if they do return, will the experience incline them to come back again?
Face masks, plastic shields at bars, in some cases having to book entry in advance – it’s all a forensically unappealing world away from going in for a pint and a blether.
Pub regulars, it has to be assumed, haven’t turned teetotal during lockdown. They’ll have stocked up on booze from supermarkets at a fraction of the cost of the money they spend in pubs.
It might be worth going back to shelling out pub prices if the company was lively and hostelries were filled again with carefree, boozy laughter. But the atmosphere is likely to be much more cautious and subdued.
Like every other social gathering place, pubs will be drastically changed. That’s the non-convivial new reality. Customers for the foreseeable future, as in Inverness city centre last Monday, could be thin on the ground. It’s going to be a long, slow process in regaining “normality”. How many pubs will survive until we get there remains to be seen.