by Colin Campbell
FRIDAY was the busiest day in Inverness city centre for almost four months and far removed from lockdown desolation.
Businesses that haven’t already reopened were fired up in preparation to do so – pubs, hotels and restaurants in particular.
The streets were busy, traffic congestion piled up again and with the Eastgate Centre due to reopen on Monday activity is returning to something approaching pre-virus levels.
But many questions remain about the new normal.
Hotels will reopen next Wednesday with prices in some cases set at little more than at a quarter of what they were this time last year, but there has been no reported early surge in bookings.
One city centre hotel has around 20 rooms booked for Wednesday and another has taken around 300 bookings up till the end of July, with the hope that these numbers will rise steadily in the weeks ahead.
But with Nicola Sturgeon’s “quarantining at the border” threat still in place how many visitors from England will decide to come here remains open to question.
The decision by the Chancellor to partly fund eating out in the seemingly endless series of giveaways aimed at reviving the economy is a clear incentive for people to treat themselves to a restaurant night out.
But bargain buys on menus may be in short supply. One leading restaurant is still hoping returning customers – aided by the Chancellor – will fork out £29 for a steak.
Yesterday’s introduction of compulsory face masks was complied with by most people and ignored by others. With store staff playing no part in the “mask-up” decree customers essentially were free to choose whether to wear them or not.
Ms Sturgeon hopes wearing face masks in shops will become “as routine as putting on a seat belt”.
Instead however, it’s more likely to go in the opposite direction. A mistimed sanction which is widely seen as being three months too late will gain initial compliance, but as more and more people ignore the ruling, so others will follow. And without any enforcement, it will soon revert to being a decision of random choice.
High Life Highland, which runs the Inverness Leisure centre, has launched what it has called a “bounceback” campaign.
Chief executive Steve Walsh said: “In reopening our facilities, HLH will place the safety of its customers, its staff and its communities uppermost at every step of the way. This means that our bounceback will be a gradual process, where we will bring back services carefully, in a structured way that allows our customers to enjoy our facilities feeling safe and well protected at all times.
“The next phase of our recovery will see more of our staff returning to prepare venues and services for reopening.”
New booking systems will be in place at libraries, museums, art galleries and the Inverness Botanic Gardens.
No reopening date has been announced for the leisure centre, by far the biggest “bounceback” challenge of all.
If booking systems are to be implemented at public libraries, a huge questionmark hangs over future activity at Inverness Leisure, which before closure was attended by thousands of people each week, and at busy times, packed out.
The prospect of people having to make advance bookings for specified time slots could lead to a wave of subscription cancellations from many who have continued to pay up to support the venue and other High Life outlets.
The reality is that many people go to the centre when they feel like it and free and easy access at a time of their choosing has been an essential part of their membership there. If, as now seems inevitable, that freedom is removed and replaced by strictly regulated time slots, membership numbers will plummet. Privately run gyms and leisure venues across the city which will provide much easier access should be looking at dropping their prices to attract those who will leave the city’s main leisure venue.
Yet another questionmark hangs over the future of pubs in Inverness.
The prospect of screens, face masks, and customers being required to give their names and addresses under reduced social distancing rules – down to one metre – may be a less than alluring prospect for some people.
Some pubs may have too few customers. Some may be busy, in which case “one metre” social distancing considerations will vanish.
However on Thursday night noise and laughter echoed down the riverside from customers outside the Glenmoriston Hotel raising glasses to having the freedom to enjoy themselves again.
So there may be good times ahead for hostelries which can adapt to the myriad complexities and conundrums of the “new normal”.
The only sector where, by comparison, reopening looks uncomplicated and profitable is in the “happy hair days” business. Appointments have stacked up at barbers and salons from next Wednesday onwards and customers who can’t wait for them to arrive will leave feeling that one large personal stride back to normal has been made, at least.