Published: 14:36, 17 May 2021
| Updated: 15:39, 18 May 2021
Ashford's streets are once again bristling with friendly chatter as pubs and restaurants reopen for indoor seating.
Today will come as a welcome relief to business owners who rely on indoor custom, serving their first customers since early December.
Among them is Kelly Stolten of The Phoenix, whose team is eager to get stuck in and entertain visitors to Ashford's town centre.
She said: "We're very excited to be reopening - it's been a long time in the waiting.
"We don't have any outdoor seating, and with space for only 16 or so people it just wasn't worth it.
"It's definitely an important day. We've been putting a lot of hard work into decorating ready for it so very much looking forward to it.
"I don't think people should be worried about sitting indoors, I think it actually runs smoothly with the new system."
Some businesses have turned to takeaway services to maintain income, yet today's lockdown easing is sure to raise profits.
This includes Stag Coffee, which not only served takeaway drinks and nibbles but even launched a Tex-Mex food delivery service during lockdown.
Operations manager Steve Rossiter said: "Business has been okay over the last couple of months, we're very dependent on the weather being nice to have people in the high street but we've ticked by.
"The Tex-Mex launch has helped us through most of lockdown and even created some jobs, so we've done alright.
"Having indoor dining again is massive, without the indoor dining we 'd struggle tremendously."
One customer enjoying Stag Coffee's reopened seating area was Judith Ratcliffe, who said: "I'm just glad to be back and able to enjoy a coffee out of the rain again."
In Elwick Place, Unita 4 is opening its doors for the very first time.
The Italian restaurant launched on April 14 with only outdoor seating.
Owner Damiano Vecchio said: "Of course we are looking forward to opening today.
"We have been trading in the rain the last few weeks so we're really excited for it and we're looking forward to welcoming people.
"We did about 20 or 30 sittings under umbrellas in front of the restaurant but it was tough. We've already got lots of bookings this week, which makes us happy to know people are looking forward to it."
Further lockdown easing is expected on June 21, when all businesses including nightclubs will be able to reopen.
Ashford MP Damian Green, speaking after Monday, said: "Everyone is enjoying life a bit more, both businesses and shoppers.
"It's not just the ability to eat and drink in comfort, but it's being able to meet more people indoors - I know it's made a lot of families very happy.
"This easing will help a huge amount. People in the hospitality sector have told me operating like this means they break even but probably not make money, so we do need to have that final step of unlocking for businesses like pubs and restaurants to be entirely financially secure."
Mr Green said it's "too early to say" what will happen with the final step of easing in June, as the Indian Covid variant becomes more prevalent.
However he was optimistic about Ashford's financial recovery, as figures revealed on Tuesday that Ashford's monthly unemployment figure had dropped "for the first time in many months, so that's a good sign people are beginning to get back to work."