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Kent soft play centres, pubs, book shops and campsites on life after lockdown

As the coronavirus lockdown begins to ease in Kent and the rest of the country, our thoughts return to life before the pandemic.

The businesses that enriched our lives - gyms, cinemas, pubs, bookshops - have been closed since March but many look set to return as the virus is brought under control.

But the anticipation of reopening comes with a unique set of challenges for each business, as owners strive to keep their offerings intact while keeping customers safe.

For some, a lack of guidance from the government has left entrepreneurs frustrated and confused as to how they can legitimately open and operate under social distancing guidelines at all.

To find out about the trials and tribulations facing Kent's businesses, we spoke to owners across the county about how they are preparing for the coming months.

The hairdressers

With hair taking on its own wild existence during lockdown, those who haven't given it a go themselves will be scrambling to make appointments with stylists the second they can.

The hairdressing business has two premises in the county.
The hairdressing business has two premises in the county.

Lea Walters, owner of Stone Hairdressing in West Malling and Canterbury, has been preparing to open both salons on the provisional date of July 4.

With around 15 weeks of appointments to get through, Lea is planning to increase the salon opening times to 9pm and Sundays to help her team get through the huge backlog of bookings whilst keeping customers and staff members safe.

There will also be no magazines available to flick through while waiting and staff will be encouraging customers to bring their own refreshments.

Lea said: "I don't want it to suddenly be a clinical experience, I still want it to be a nice relaxing service for the customer, as well as protecting them and the team from the virus, so it's getting the balance right."

Lea Walters has devised a system to keep customers safe
Lea Walters has devised a system to keep customers safe

Staff will also be using disposable towels, disposable aprons and wearing masks to limit the potential spread of the virus.

Due to the high number of staff working in the salon at one time, Lea has also come up with a traffic lights system to keep track of hygiene.

If a customer uses the toilet, their stylist will give them a set of red stickers to place onto each surface they touch, so a member of staff knows what needs to be sanitised for the next customer.

Customers leaving their chair for a separate treatment will have an amber sticker put on their seat, to make everyone in the salon know not to touch it and that the person will be returning.

Lea said: "It'll be really easy for the team and the customers to understand what's been sanitised, what to touch and what not to touch."

The team are ready to get back to some kind of normality.
The team are ready to get back to some kind of normality.

The gym

Since lockdown began, people looking to exercise have had to resort to home workouts or trips to their nearest park.

But Jay Atkins, owner of Core The Gym in Maidstone, has been hard at work getting his premises ready for an influx of customers when he gets the go-ahead to open.

Along with his team, Jay has completely redesigned the 10,000 sq ft facility to make sure members can workout while remaining socially distanced from one another.

He said: "We've managed to rearrange the entire space - it's been significant moving everything around, but we're able to assure there's a sensible, usable space between each piece of equipment, providing members with their safety.

Jay's gym has been redesigned to adhere to social distancing rules.
Jay's gym has been redesigned to adhere to social distancing rules.

"There was an element of trial and error, however we feel like we've landed on the best possible design to ensure our members aren't interrupted whilst using the facility.

"In addition we've also provided cleaning stations which have hand wipes, antibacterial wipes, hand sanitiser and sanitising surface spray as well, and they're available throughout the gym."

Despite Jay's determination, he is still waiting on guidance from the government for how gyms should reopen.

He said: "There are countries that are slightly ahead of us in their precautions and planning, so we've looked at countries like Spain and France and seen the steps they've taken to ensure a safe environment."

Last week, a number of John Reed fitness centres in Berlin reopened, albeit with some machines taped off and a high number of hand sanitising stations.

Jay says he has done everything possible to make his customers feel safe.
Jay says he has done everything possible to make his customers feel safe.

Even as he prepares for the green light to open his doors once again, Jay believes some customers will be hesitant to go back to their gyms from fear of contracting the virus.

He said: "I do think people will be more cautious about returning to the gym, but in many ways that's a good thing - if we can apply common sense and adopt reasonable behaviours, surely we can slow any further spread of the disease."

The pub

Amidst reports that some pubs and restaurants could reopen as early as June 22, landlords across the county will be eager to welcome drinkers back through their doors.

But with detailed restrictions still to be announced, pub and bar owners are having to come up with their own ideas of how to welcome customers back whilst keeping them safe.

Jamie Clark (left) and Tom Mudge co-own The Dead Pigeon.
Jamie Clark (left) and Tom Mudge co-own The Dead Pigeon.

Jamie Clark and Tom Mudge, who co-own The Dead Pigeon in Rochester, have already put a plan in place to prepare for reopening.

The pair have devised a booking system on their website, which will require people to book a slot before arriving at the pub.

Tables will be distanced from each other to cater for couples and larger groups of people.

The bar will also change to a table service to minimise the number of people away from their seats and customers will be able to scan a QR code to order their food from where they sit.

Jamie said: "We built the pub to be sociable and now we're undoing all of that and building it to be unsociable.

People visiting the pub will have to book a table before arriving.
People visiting the pub will have to book a table before arriving.

"But I do think people are going to want to get out of the house, have a bit of a drink and some food, something they've not been able to do for months."

The business recently adapted to offer takeaway food and drink deliveries to customers across Medway.

The soft play area

The question on many a parent's lips - how can you apply social distancing in a childs' soft play area?

For husband and wife Andrew and Elizabeth Moody, who run Adventure Kidz in Aylesford, their goal of opening in the near future looks to be unlikely.

The husband and wife feel abandoned by a lack of help from the government.
The husband and wife feel abandoned by a lack of help from the government.

With children bouncing around in ball ponds and whizzing down slides, they can see no easy way to reopen and responsibly apply social distancing and hygiene measures.

The uncertainty of when they can open has the two worried for the future of their business, which has been exempt from financial help from the government throughout the pandemic.

Andrew said: "When a child comes down the slide and they put their hands on the rails when they come down, are the government expecting us to then have a member of staff sitting at the top to come down the slide following that child, cleaning behind them?

"If that's what they're expecting, then that's unrealistic because I will have to employ more staff, with less revenue."

As other leisure businesses look to to open from July 4, the pair are anxiously waiting for guidance from the government which is specific to soft play areas.

Andrew and Elizabeth are hoping more help comes from the government.
Andrew and Elizabeth are hoping more help comes from the government.

Andrew said: "The government have looked at it globally and taken every single business as being equal.

"They need to look at various sectors now, one being the leisure sector, high contact business, where everything is being touched within our business.

"Because at this moment, we do not know where the next penny is coming from."

The record store

The joy of shopping as a vinyl-lover is flicking through huge stacks of records and hunting for your favourite artists but fears of contamination from customer to customer poses a problem.

Nick said the size of his store should make it easier to keep customers apart (36066491)
Nick said the size of his store should make it easier to keep customers apart (36066491)

But Nick Pygott, who owns the pint-sized Vinylstore Jr in Canterbury, has come up with a plan which he hopes will allow him to open safely from Friday, June 19.

Since lockdown began, he has spent a lot of time delivering records to customers across the city, whilst keeping his online shop open for customers to purchase music.

He said: "The shop actually lends itself quite well to social distancing - although it's tiny, that helps facilitate a one-in, one-out policy.

"There's a buzzer on the door so I'll be buzzing people in one at a time."

As a sole trader, Nick has not had to worry about training staff on the new measures and will be open for two days a week at the start to allow his customers back in to browse the vinyl on offer.

Nick is preparing to open his store from 19 June.
Nick is preparing to open his store from 19 June.

The music obsessive said: "We'll have some hand sanitiser which will be available just inside the front door, and everyone will be required to sanitise on the way in, which obviously then means I don't need to sanitise the whole shop and every touched record between every customer.

"I'll still do door handles, the card machine and touched surfaces, but if they're sanitising on the way in and the way out there shouldn't be too much risk.

He added: "The only other way of doing it is you sanitise every individual item that everybody has touched in between customers, which frankly I don't think is viable."

The independent book shop

While Nick prepares to open his record store next week, the owner of a book shop in Tonbridge still has no current plans to welcome customers back.

Phil Holden is concerned there is no easy way for him to reopen and protect customers.
Phil Holden is concerned there is no easy way for him to reopen and protect customers.

Phil Holden, who runs Mr Books, is concerned the size of his store and the nature of bookshop browsing means there is no feasible way to reopen his store.

Book retail giant Waterstones recently announced that to open safely, all books touched by customers would be stored in a back room for up to 72 hours, to reduce potential contamination of the virus.

Due to the compact nature of Phil's store, a plan like this would not be an option.

The bookseller said: "We have over 2,000 books, and people want to pick them up and look at them, touch them and smell them, and pass them around.

"It would be impossible to sanitise all those books after people have looked at them."

The bookshop has been offering online orders and delivery since closing in March (36222022)
The bookshop has been offering online orders and delivery since closing in March (36222022)

Phil said he would not consider opening until he was absolutely sure he could keep staff and customers safe but without any further guidance he is left waiting.

He said: "There has been no specific guidance for book shops but there's general guidance for retailers, for example marking out two-metre spaces on the floor, which is impossible in our store.

"The shelves are less than two metres apart from each other, so that kind of thing is almost impossible, and in many small shops it must be the same."

The campsite

After it was announced people travelling abroad would need to enter a mandatory 14-day quarantine, staycation destinations look set to capitalise on people still wanting to book some time away from home during the summer holiday.

Having to keep toilet blocks closed could stop those without their own facilities from camping.
Having to keep toilet blocks closed could stop those without their own facilities from camping.

But as Tony Bennett, owner of Little Switzerland campsite in Folkestone explained, sites may not be able to welcome all customers back immediately.

Due to the potential spread of the virus in toilet blocks, campsite owners may have to limit customers to only those who have their own caravans with built-in chemical toilets.

He said: "Obviously we're still waiting for the guidelines to be released - for now I'm following others in the caravan industry, and the general theme at the moments seems to be it will be only self-contained units for the first phase.

"We're very unique here - we've got isolated pitches, we're not just a field.

The veteran campsite owner added: "It's all hearsay at the moment - we're hearing it could be July 4 to open, actually we're ready to go now."

Until the caravan industry receives more details on how it is allowed to operate, Tony, like many other business owners across Kent, must wait.

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