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Shopping is back, but not as we know it: a look at the ‘Covid secure’ high street

All non-essential retailers – including clothes, shoe, toy, book and electronics shops, tailors, auction houses, photography studios and indoor markets – in England were able to reopen this week, provided they had followed UK government guidelines to make them “Covid-secure”.

That means reopened shops should have carried out a risk assessment using guidance from the Health and Safety Executive. Employers also had a duty to consult staff about the safety measures required. Businesses were expected to inform all staff about the findings of their assessments, and those with more than 50 employees should have published the results on their websites.

Shops should now have hygiene procedures in place to keep staff and customers safe, for instance by providing hand-washing facilities and regularly cleaning surfaces, including self-checkouts, trolleys, or devices handled by staff. Employers will also need to help those with visual impairments or disabilities to navigate these measures.

It’s not only shop owners tasked with keeping customers safe. Shoppers have also been urged to protect each other by, for example, not trying on clothing or testing goods. Fitting rooms should be closed wherever possible. If they are open, contact between customers and staff should be limited. They should also be cleaned frequently, typically after each use.

For many it is all new. But not for Surinder Josan who has been implementing safety measures for the past few months. Josan owns two family-run businesses in Smethwick, West Midlands: a hardware store, All Seasons DIY, started by his parents; and Seasons Palace, a banqueting venue for weddings and parties.

Where - All Seasons DIY, Smethwick When - 10th June 2020 Why - Businesses implementing social distancing during Covid-19 lockdown.
 As an essential business, Josan’s DIY store has been open for much of lockdown with safety measures in place. Photograph: Stephen Burke/The Guardian Labs

The 55-year-old grew up helping in the DIY shop and appeared to be heading down a different career path after a degree in electronics and studying for a master’s in IT. But when his father developed a heart problem while Josan was studying, he took the reins, streamlining the way the DIY shop ran and developing two thriving businesses.

The whole family has been involved – including his wife, his mother, his father until he died a few years ago, and even his children when they’re not studying. “We like to be right in the thick of things so we run them both. With the venue it’s actually pretty easy – we just take the bookings and direct people to our suppliers like caterers, DJs, the people who do the decorations.

The detail is taken off our hands. Plus, the main use of that is at the weekend and evenings when the shop isn’t open, so I can jump from one to the other.” When Josan started hearing about the coronavirus in late December, he admits to being scared.

“The first thing that came to mind was that the banqueting venue was not going to work in those circumstances.” So, in late January/early February, he took the decision to close the 200-person venue, persuading customers to move their bookings to 2021. While the loss of income was a hit, he decided the move was in the best interests of everyone’s safety.

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He was then faced with deciding what to do about the shop. “The biggest problem is that my mother’s DNA is part of the shop, and asking her to step away from it was a big no-no. The only way to get her away was to close. So when they announced that pubs and schools were all closed we bit the bullet and shut it too.”

Putting the time to good use, he decided to carry out a shop refit, but put notices up saying if anyone needed hardware items for repairs or urgent work, he would help. It started with a few phone calls, he says, but soon there was a steady stream of people wanting to buy things. “It also dawned on us that hardware stores were allowed to remain open, so we thought: ‘If we’re going to do this, we will have to do it properly.’”

That decision prompted Josan and his family to put an array of measures in place to keep both themselves and their customers safe. “We put lines outside the shop. We also barricaded the area by the till so customers come in one by one, tell us what they want, then we go and get it. We reduced the contactless payments minimum from £5 to £1 to make it easier for people to limit contact. We also started cleaning the money using wipes.”

The measures weren’t necessarily easy, but were well-received by customers filled with confidence that Josan was doing everything he could to keep them safe. “It was hard work – we were constantly going backwards and forwards – I think I did 17,000 steps in one day and that was just in the shop.

“It was so tiring that we cut down our hours, so instead of opening from 9am to 7pm we opened from 10am to 4.30pm. The number of customers who’ve come in and complimented us is unbelievable. They say that when they come here they feel really safe. We did it because we wanted to be safe, but it works for everyone.”

Where - All Seasons DIY, Smethwick When - 10th June 2020 Why - Businesses implementing social distancing during Covid-19 lockdown.
 Josan hopes that customers will continue to adhere to safety measures as lockdown restrictions ease. Photograph: Stephen Burke/The Guardian Labs

While many businesses will be getting used to new practices and ways of working, Josan and his family have few changes planned for the immediate future, being happy to continue with the safety measures they’ve been using for the past few months.

“We’re going to carry on doing exactly what we have been doing up until now,” he says. Despite that, he remains concerned that not everyone is as careful with their safety as he and his fellow retailers are.

“People have calmed down and there’s less panic-buying, but they aren’t observing the 2-metre rule. They’re just a bit absent-minded about it,” he adds.

And while he plans on keeping things as they are for the DIY store, potentially until the end of the year, Josan admits the future is less clear for the banqueting venue.

“If the government says we can open, I have thought about how I would do it and keep people separate. You could do it with the tables, with the toilets, and the kitchen and even the stage. But how do you do it on a dance floor? Unless you draw circles and tell people to stay inside them.

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“So the only way I can think of is that instead of having 200 people you have 60-70, and use more of the outdoors as opposed to the indoors. These are some of my thoughts, but I have got to do it so we are safe and whoever is with us – the caterers, the guests – are safe too. The last thing I want is for there to be an outbreak.”

In the meantime, he plans to offer the space to a local school free of charge if it needs more room in order to welcome children back. With so much adjustment needed for the “new normal” when it comes to our shops and venues, Josan acknowledges that it can be confusing. But he says there is a lot of information available, both from the UK government and other organisations, to help business owners put the right measures in place to keep themselves, their staff and their customers safe. And while he is confident that he’s been doing his bit to make sure his customers aren’t put in harm’s way, he admits the future is uncertain.

“This is a new normal – we’re not going to go back to what we had for some time yet. There are still so many unknowns. At the end of the day, this virus is going to take out people who are close to us. It isn’t good enough to only think of our businesses and economy.”

This advertiser content was paid for by the UK government. All together is a government-backed initiative tasked with informing the UK about the Covid-19 pandemic

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