Pubs light up for first time in months as normality returns to city centre

by Colin Campbell

INVERNESS pubs were lit up again after dark for the first time in months on Monday, with a solid level of expectation that this time they’ll be allowed to stay that way.

Under the latest easing of rules drink and food can now be served indoors until 10.30pm.

Is this finally the end of a ‘nightmare year’ for the licensing trade?

Despite warnings over the past 14 months that some might close down for good, virtually all hostelries in and around the city centre were open and back in business.

Hootanannys was one prominent exception although the popular city centre music venue is expected to reopen in the next few days.

On a damp Monday night there was no surge of customers heading out to mark the reopening. But most had at least a smattering of customers and Wetherspoons and the Black Isle Bar in Church Street were fairly busy.

Bar owners have had to struggle through months of lockdown and the Gellions Bar and Hootanannys tried to raise money through crowdfunding appeals, with very limited success.

There was concern last August after bars were allowed to reopen and, predictably, social distancing considerations were forgotten or ignored as customers poured into the city centre at weekends in large numbers.

Pub related outbreaks of coronavirus in Aberdeen provided a jolt which brought bars and their customers more in line with regulations.

However the shutters went up again in December after the arrival of the more infectious “second wave”.

In Dingwall at that time around a dozen people were believed to have contracted the virus during a night out in one single pub.

A “nightmare year” for bar owners continued until Monday. They already had permission to serve alcohol outdoors but for most this was meaningless as they had no space to do so, and the majority stayed closed until the start of this week.

Even now the future contains an element of doubt. While a majority of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, many young people have not.

They will converge on the city centre at the weekend and almost inevitably it will again become a social distancing free zone.

What effect this will have on virus infections is unclear, as is Nicola Sturgeon’s reaction to it if it happens.

Sturgeon herself yet again added to the confusion last week with a declaration that rules on physical contact were being eased and people would be “allowed to hug” friends and family when in a private house or garden. She said making the announcement made her feel quite emotional.

Many people – including publicans – might have considered her choice of words quite idiotic.

The notion that people – no matter how strictly they adhered to the rules – were awaiting permission from the First Minister to “hug” others oozed absurdity.

It also gave rise to a blizzard of front page “Summer of hugs!” headlines.

And regardless of the small print attached to Sturgeon’s statement, there will be plenty of hugging – as there was last time – in and around Inverness city centre pubs this weekend.

However as the number of people who have been vaccinated increases rapidly it would be difficult even for the First Minister to rise above the outpouring of scorn and opposition which would accompany any move to impose yet another round of lockdowns because of rising infection rates which do not lead to hospitalisation or serious illness.

Only an infinitesimally small number of people under 30 have suffered serious illness because of coronavirus, with minor symptoms or none at all being the normal effect.

Inverness city centre was busy yesterday and apart from the prevalence of masks looked much as it did before the virus struck.

Virtually all the shops and businesses in the High Street were open.

The street which has been hit hardest by permanent coronavirus closures is Inglis Street, much of which has been emptied out.

Union Street is swathed in scaffolding as major redevelopment work there continues.

But otherwise the city centre looks to have come through the past 14 months of emptiness and desolation and returned to near normality, as it awaits what’s expected to be a very large influx of tourists in the “summer of hugs”.

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