"Getting to grips with living with it" - city experts on moving forward with COVID as next fortnight hailed as a critical time for city economy

The fortnight after schools return will be critical to kickstarting the high street in Leeds city centre - which is still only attracting half its usual numbers of shoppers.

By Emma Ryan
Thursday, 3rd September 2020, 6:00 am

Workers make up a huge portion of the city's footfall and, with many still working from home, it is hoped that children returning to schools will be a significant step back towards normality and that workers will follow suit and swap the dining room tables for desks in offices.

Figures stated by LeedsBID during an online webinar last week, called 'Reviewing the last five months from the start of lockdown', suggest that 49 to 50 per cent of footfall has returned. This is in comparison with 81 per cent of pre-COVID levels being seen in smaller cities and just 28 per cent in London.

Andrew Cooper, chief executive of LeedsBID said: "The next two weeks are going to be critical with schools going back and the office sector going back. It has shifted from 'the complete lockdown and we are never moving' to some sort of hybrid solution in terms of getting workers back into the city centre.There is lots of discussion about footfall but it is meaningless unless you know what happens and spend."

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Karen Butler, head of place management and delivery, explained that while there were not as many people browsing, the people that were shopping were spending more money when they did hit the shops.

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Ms Butler said: "Retail is 100 per cent (re-opened) but hospitality is 95 per cent, there are some missing sectors of course. There is still a huge chunk not functioning as it would, that said when you look at footfall it is 49/50 per cent in Leeds. There has been much made of that but when you look at smaller cities, they are 81 per cent of pre-COVID levels, London is on 28 per cent - that is struggling. We are seeing that in Leeds but not to the same extreme. Cities are reliant on a wider audience rather than local population and that is where you see that extreme in that way."

Work From Home

Wearing face masks to shop has been compulsory for more than a month now.

Whilst it is hoped that some people will return to work places in staggered or phased stages, it is accepted that working from home and offices will also become a new normal.

She explained: "We are still missing a huge amount of the workforce, but maybe they won't come back to pre-Covid status, maybe we are looking at a hybrid way. Google say stay at home for 12 months - there are lots of different models along that line. That is extreme but we are hearing that some employers are coming back in a staggered and phased basis and that is good news. We think September 7 and the return to schools is a huge trigger and shift."

It was also said during the webinar that, for example, legal experts, Addleshaw Goddard LLP have 500 plus employees and are based at Sovereign Square. From July its message to staff was 'open but attendance was voluntary' and from the beginning of this month it is taking a hybrid approach to employees splitting time between the office and working from home.

Andrew Cooper said this was more realistic with a balance to be found between the negatives and benefits to working at home.

Are retailers having to tempt shoppers back into stores with sales and promotions?

He said: "(In the beginning) we saw people taking screens and laptops and it was like a grand heist, then people got to grips with technology but how long before it impacts on mental health, being Zoomed out and how you really manage staff in terms of personal development and getting teams together? After a while the working from home shine wears off, that was a concern for me. As people find some hybrid system, there are some benefits. I was a geography, PE, RE teacher and have more time with the family so it is getting that work/life balance that is really important."

Attitudes

It was also said that with a comparison of 1,152 COVID deaths on April 9, compared to 16 on August 26 - and deaths from cancer at 450 every day - are attitudes to the virus changing?

Andrew Cooper said people are "getting to grips with it" and we have to start looking forward.

"Any death is a sad occasion and since the first death people have got to understand the virus better. It has shifted into what information is correct and is not correct. We are getting used to how we live with it and a lot of scientists are saying like in Asia, where they are used to pandemics, we are not. We think we are immune but we are not. People have adjusted their opinions and people have adapted.

"It has been a steep learning curve but I think we are getting to grips to living with it."

Events

Getting the same balance for the staging of events and adding to the Leeds footfall, which has been a huge part of the work of LeedsBID over the last five years, also requires a hybrid approach but with most summer events and plans abandoned, focus has moved to Christmas.

Ms Butler said: "We have got to find that right fit. We are not in a position where we can drive crowds to places. We have had to postpone things like the dinosaur trail and the Leeds International Festival. All of these things take a year of planning, that is a huge investment in time and money just to get them off the ground, so it is devastating when you have to move and shift these, but we have been doing this constantly since lockdown. It was wrong to stop that planning, we did not want to do nothing and would rather plan and move than have an empty calendar.

"We are looking at Christmas at the moment and will be bringing something, but in a way that we would not have done before. We all need something to look forward to, as long as we can do that safely and sensibly."

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Laura Collins