‘It’s like having three winters’: how Covid-19 has changed the British seaside | Travel

‘It’s like having three winters’: how Covid-19 has changed the British seaside | Travel

Of all the things coronavirus has taken away from life on Brighton’s seafront, among the saddest must be the high-fives. Previously undertaken without worrying where hands have been and what germs they might be carrying, they are now strongly discouraged: a sign actively bans them. “It says ‘No high-fives’,” says Katie Mintram, with a small laugh. She has run Yellowave beach sports centre – a cafe and several volleyball courts – since 2007. She is navigating her way through a summer that feels very different from normal. “In volleyball, it’s all about high-fives.”

Yellowave is on the beach itself. Stepping over the tracks of the Volk’s Electric Railway (still closed) from a very quiet Madeira Drive is like stepping into a parallel world – busy, peopled, thriving, normal. Each of the six courts is full, matches being played by fit, happy people in shorts and bikinis; many of the cafe’s outdoor tables have customers sitting at them. It is nowhere near as bleak as the shuttered snack bars and souvenir shops on the main road. That is because there is a tournament on, explains Mintram – the first of the summer. “If the tournament wasn’t here, it probably would have been a bit more depressing,” she says.

The volleyball courts at Katie Mintram’s Yellowave, Brighton

‘I think people are starting to feel a bit safer’ … the volleyball courts at Katie Mintram’s Yellowave.

As with many of the businesses along Britain’s seafronts, the window for Yellowave to make a profit is small. “We only make money for six months, from March to August. From September, we actually lose money – though we’d lose more if we were shut completely – but the business is absolutely summer-reliant,” says Mintram.

She reopened the cafe in June and has been supported by the strong community of volleyball-playing regulars, who have kept in touch with Zoom calls and quizzes. But the corporate bookings that make up a significant proportion of her income have disappeared. Mintram estimates they are taking about 40% of what they would expect at this time of year. “We’re trying to be optimistic and do as much as we can to keep people coming down here.” There is a lot of outdoor space and, she points out, beach volleyball is a socially distanced sport. “I think people are starting to feel a bit safer.” But she adds: “Coronavirus has come at a bad time for everyone, but for the tourist industry it’s come at the worst time. It’s like having three winters.”

Jenny Xing at her shop on Brighton marina

‘Ten customers is a very good day’ … Jenny Xing at her shop.

Again and again, I hear a similar story walking the length of Brighton’s seafront, east to west, from the marina to the West Pier. For all that there has been a focus on people, released from the worst of the lockdown, packing beaches – a “major incident” was declared in Bournemouth last month as people crowded the beach, while Brighton and Hove city council employed stewards to ensure people adhered to social distancing on the spring bank holiday weekend in May – Britain’s coastal resorts are struggling.

The National Coastal Tourism Academy predicts that the loss of tourism will cost Britain’s coastal areas more than £10bn this year. Tourism brings almost £900m to Brighton each year, accounting for 14% of employment. The council has already estimated that cancelled events and festivals, such as Pride, the Brighton festival and the city’s marathon, will mean £100m in lost revenue. Having already missed out on the Easter break, a couple of bank holidays and some glorious spring weather, seaside businesses will be balancing their need for an influx of customers against the dangers this could bring – a second, or local, lockdown would finish off many of them.

It is a weekday morning in July and the sky is grey and flinty. At the marina, Jenny Xing, who runs a clothes shop, is arranging hangers and cleaning surfaces. She reopened the shop in mid-June. “Last year, we had loads of people from different countries, from Europe and America,” she says. “It’s much quieter now.” Some days, she says, there have been no customers. “Every day is different; sometimes one customer, sometimes two. Ten is a very good day.” She says she worries “a lot. I worry there will be a lockdown again. I hope not. People are still maybe scared to go out, to go shopping.”

Amy Dennard with her partner at Brighton marina

‘At the start, we were probably 75% down … but we’re slowly getting back up’ … Amy Dennard with her partner at the Laughing Dog cafe.

At the Laughing Dog cafe around the corner, there are quite a few customers sitting at the outside tables. Amy Dennard, the co-owner, who opened the cafe and its shop in 2009, is fairly upbeat about the way they have adapted – they are lucky to have the outside space, she says, and there is a large window from which they can serve takeaway coffee and food. “At the start, we were probably 75% down, so we were really affected,” she says. “But we’re slowly getting back up. With the start of school holidays around the corner, we’d be expecting to do double the amount we are, takings-wise. But with what we’ve scaled back, we’re doing OK.” She is not too reliant on tourists: “We have a lot of residents this side of Brighton. We’re lucky that the locals here have made an effort to support us, whether through the takeaway service or buying things from our shop on our website.” But she is concerned about what the winter will be like, especially when the weather makes sitting outdoors difficult – she has had to remove more than half of her indoor tables to make the space safer.

Abo Fall at his phone-box stall, Brighton marina

‘People are dying from corona; we are alive. Thank God for that’ … Abo Fall at his phone-box stall.

At lunchtime, Brighton’s promenade is still quiet. There are runners, women with pushchairs and a few couples. There are a few people at the halfway station of the Volk’s railway, with its small train that runs much of the length of the seafront, but it is just a training day for the three new people who have joined – there is no service. On the pier, further up, some of the kiosks are shut and there are reminders everywhere of the pandemic: a one-way system; hand sanitisers on the change machines in the arcades. A man sprays the inside of the dodgems, paying particular attention to the steering wheel, after each ride. A sign on the rollercoaster says face coverings must be worn.

At the entrance to the pier, Abo Fall is selling clothes and sunglasses from two red former phone boxes. “It’s slow,” he says. “You get people from Germany, France coming down, but this year we haven’t seen anybody.” He will close in October, he thinks, and will do other jobs over the winter, as he would normally. For now, he says, he is making enough money, mainly selling sunglasses. Is he optimistic about the rest of the summer? “Always,” he says, smiling. “People are dying from corona; we are alive. Thank God for that, really.”

Ron Smith at his souvenir shop, Brighton

‘We’ve got no foreign tourists’ … Ron Smith at his souvenir shop.

Ron Smith, who runs a souvenir shop near the pier, has a similar view. “I’m here and I haven’t got the coronavirus. I don’t care what else happens: as long as I don’t get that, I’ll survive.” Still, he says, it has been tough. He can’t let people inside the shop he has run for 15 years because it is too small for social distancing. He was allowed to start putting things out on the forecourt – flip-flops, beach toys, plastic hairbrushes with girls’ names printed on them, racks of magnets – a few weeks ago. “This is July and look: the place is empty,” he says. Two women stop to buy a furry, rainbow-coloured ball. “We’re probably at about 30% to 40% of what we should be taking. We’ve got no foreign tourists.” They are the ones who buy the souvenirs. “All my souvenirs are in the shop because nobody’s buying them.”

Owen Smith, who owns a couple of carousels and a chippie.

‘We can only live in hope’ … Owen Smith, who owns a couple of carousels and a chippie.

Instead, he is mainly selling things for the beach – shoes, towels, parasols – to day-trippers from London and the occasional local. There are signs of an upturn in tourism. “In the last two weeks, we started selling postcards again.” He is hoping for a vaccine, good weather and some international tourists. “I think it will be next year now, maybe even the year after, depending on whether we get another spike.”

Across the promenade, Owen Smith stands by his carousel, ornate horses running free with no children to ride them. His family owns the ride – along with a smaller carousel for younger children, operated by a young man wearing a plastic visor, and a large fish-and-chip restaurant opposite. They reopened about three weeks ago.

How has it been? “Not very good,” he says, although he is smiling. “With what we’ve been taking, it’s probably 60% or 70% down on last year.” Weekends are busier, he says, “but at the moment it’s nowhere near what it should be”. He hopes the business will make up the shortfall over the school holidays, particularly as people choose to stay in the UK, but he is not overly optimistic. “All the kids have been off for so long, so I don’t know whether six weeks is going to make a difference, but hopefully, all being well. We can only live in hope, can’t we?”

At another fish-and-chip shop, Peter Short seems a bit more positive. “It’s not been too bad, but not like a proper summer,” he says. “It’s well down on last year, but people are coming back and we’ll keep going.” If anything, he says, it was too busy a few weeks ago during the heatwave, when visitors crowded the beach. “It was bad, because of the virus. We’ve done the best we can here: we’ve put barriers up, screens up, people are keeping their distance.”

Ant Fox, an artist on Brighton beach

‘People have been sat at home and noticing blank walls.’ … Ant Fox, a local artist, says business is picking up.

Other businesses are doing reasonably well. Ant Fox, an artist, sells his works from a small shop under the arches, as well as online, and reopened about a month ago. Even if people have not been going to bars and restaurants in the same way, many locals have been taking their daily walk along the seafront. “Round about payday, people have started to go: ‘Oh, I’ll come back for that,’” he says. “People have been sat at home and noticing blank walls.” The commissioned pet portraits have been doing well, he says – there is one of his cat, Donkey, dressed in military costume, leading other cats into battle.

(From left) Ebada Hassan, Zeinab Lamah and Danielle Tcheugoue, on a day trip to Brighton from London

‘We’ve been cooped up for a long time’ … Ebada Hassan, Zeinab Lamah and Danielle Tcheugoue, on a day trip from London.

By the middle of the afternoon, the wind has dropped and the sun has burned through the clouds, transforming time in that disorienting way that makes the morning feel as if it was another day. Earlier, I had wandered past a busker – largely ignored, his guitar case penniless – closed coffee kiosks and a lone couple drinking champagne on the terrace of the 162-metre-tall i360 observation tower, which may have felt private, but also looked a bit sad.

Now, suddenly, it feels as if there are people everywhere. Some are wearing masks. On the beach, Ebada Hassan and three friends have arranged a socially distanced picnic – they have brought a cake, which seems to be melting, she says with a laugh, for a friend who is about to arrive for a surprise birthday party. They have travelled down from London; it is their first time out of the city since lockdown began. “It’s been nice to get away,” she says. “We’ve been cooped up in our houses for a long time now; it’s nice to see friends.” They came to Brighton last year, she says, and today is “way busier. But, then, we went on a cool day and it wasn’t really sunny.”

Liza Faruk and family, who were visiting Brighton from Worthing

‘My sons have wanted to come here for a long time’ … Liza Faruk and family, who were visiting from Worthing.

Liza Faruk and her husband and two young sons have come from nearby Worthing for the day. “My sons have wanted to come here for a long time,” she says. It is the family’s first trip away from home since lockdown, too, but Faruk says she does not feel anxious about being out. They have visited Brighton a lot in previous years, she says: “Today seems quiet.” It seems fairly busy to me – there are people sunbathing and the beachfront bars are filling up – but perhaps the weeks of lockdown have recalibrated what “busy” looks like.

“This is dead,” says Mark Hedger, who runs Brighton Beach Bikes, a cycle hire shop, looking around his beachfront premises. About half a dozen bikes are out today. “I’m probably going to take about a third of what I would normally take on a July day. July is probably the busiest time of the year, because I’m more likely to get the older tourists. And the Scandinavians, the Germans, they’d normally be coming in around now.”

Mark Hedger at his bike shop, Brighton

‘This is a lost year’ … Mark Hedger at his bike shop.

Still, friendly and smiling, he does not seem gloomy – he has received business grants and the sea view helps, he says. Plus, hiring out bikes is a nice business to run: “Most people who come in are happy and they come back happy.” It was hard to be closed during lockdown, when “the perfect weather happened”. He seems calm, as you would expect from a man who spent 25 years as a lifeguard on this beach, but he says 2020 is “a lost year. As long as I don’t go too far backwards, I’m happy. I think we’ll survive till next year and then regroup, cut down outgoings, have less stock. It should be OK, but we’re not making any money this year – we’re standing still.”

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