Yorkshire's shops are 'raring to go' as they prepare to reopen on April 12 after three months of lockdown

Yorkshire's retail sector is looking forward with "cautious optimism" to the re-opening of non-essential shops on Monday after putting in place new measures to ensure they are Covid-compliant for the latest stage of lockdown measures being eased.

One leading business figure in North Yorkshire said the county's small firms were "ready to take the leap" of operating alongside some restrictions as they emerged from a year in which their doors have been closed for months at a time.

Carolyn Frank, North Yorkshire’s development manager for the Federation of Small Business, said shops had invested a lot of money in making their businesses secure and with a greater online presence, with many taking on a lot of debt.

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Leeds city centre last year after lockdown measures were lifted. Pic: James Hardisty

She said: "So they're starting from a negative position even when restrictions are lifted so it's going to take time to recover. You can't do two years in one, so even if you're busier you've still lost those months where you've been restricted from opening.

"But generally I think if they survive the pandemic and have managed to carry on and survive and get through those cash flow issues then they're in a good position because of those adaptations they have made, their businesses are stronger because of this."

Supermarkets, pharmacies, off licences, garden centres and bicycle shops were among the limited types of businesses permitted to stay open when the third lockdown began on January 5.

Three months on, businesses such as clothing and homeware retailers, electronic goods, charity shops and car washes are being given the green light to reopen their doors from Monday.

Catherine Riley, centre manager for the Kirkgate Shopping Centre in Bradford city centre, said she expected to be "extremely busy". The site has extended its opening hours to 8am-7pm, allowing people to visit when things are quieter if they are worried about social distancing.

Queue systems will be in place for retailers where queues are expected, with hand sanitisers and directional signage in place to ensure shops are Covid-compliant.

She said: "We're feeling absolutely positive, we've all got a 'bring it on' attitude now because it's so close, and we've waited so long. Now we've been through it twice previously so it's well-oiled machine, but we are still learning all the time. We're just very, very excited to welcome people back again."

Andrew Goodacre, Chief Executive of the British Independent Retailers Association, said businesses had been preparing for April 12 as a reopening date since the lockdown 'roadmap' was revealed.

He said: "There's no doubt that they're ready to go, they've got all of the safety protocols refreshed that they had last time, so that they're fit and raring to go.

"I think it's about fine tuning what they need to do with minor changes that have been made. And there is a cautious optimism.

"They are enthusiastic, they expect customers to come back early on, and it's then a bit of luck and a bit of hard work and some support to make sure that pent up demand is sustained over a longer period of time."

He said this time there was a greater emphasis on ventilation for small shops, who were being encouraged to ensure a flow of air by having their front and back doors open. And the Government has offered more clarity on changing rooms, meaning they can open this time round provided they are cleaned and monitored regularly.

Looking forward, Mr Goodacre said there were "a couple of black clouds" facing the sector, with a moratorium on landlords taking action against tenants who have fallen into arrears running out at the end of June.

He added: "It would be an absolute shame if businesses that were perfectly good before but found it difficult during this pandemic, just as they are trying to rebuild themselves had the rug pulled from under their feet because of rent debt."

He said: "The other aspect we need to bear in mind is that there is this pent up demand, we know that, but it's how do we sustain demand in coming to the high street and keeping the enjoyment levels and keeping the safety levels.

"Can the Government provide some kind of stimulus to ensure that people carry on enjoying themselves throughout the summer throughout the autumn and hopefully all the way into the festive period which many missed out on last year? It's how do we sustain the demand once that initial burst of energy has expired."

He said the Government needed to start thinking about a scheme similar to the Chancellor's Eat Out to Help Out initiative last summer which gave people discounted meals in pubs and restaurants to encourage people to spend on their high streets.

He said: "I think stimulus may be needed around September time. Summer will play out, and less people going abroad no doubt, so more money spent in this country, that's positive. But it's when you get to September, October we may just need that little bit of extra stimulus at that point."

Caroline Frank said a reform of business rates - the tax levied on properties used for business - was needed as the current system was 'crippling the high street'. Chancellor Rishi Sunak promised a review at last year's Budget but it has been delayed until later this year.

Helen Simpson, Chair of the York & North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “It’s a big moment for York and North Yorkshire high streets in this gradual process of easing lockdown.

"So much work has been carried out across the region to ensure our high streets are safe spaces, meeting Covid guidance. We hope that people will continue to do their best to shop locally, supporting their local business communities.

"There’s a sense of optimism right now, and we all hope for continued progress in the months ahead so that more restrictions can be lifted.”

Mark Goldstone, Head of Business Representation and Policy at the West and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, said: “After the most challenging year for business in peacetime, many firms are cautiously optimistic that they can at long last see a route towards recovery.

"In our latest economic report published in early April, we said that business confidence was improving, back to pre-pandemic levels, however there are still short term risks which we acknowledged.

"Cash reserves remain tight for many firms within retail and hospitality and so we need to be confident that Monday’s reopening is not quickly followed by further closures or increased restrictions without strong scientific evidence; and that any further interventions must come with financial support for affected businesses, including those supplying into these front line sectors.”