The plight of town centre businesses that are open during Covid
- Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND
Owners of some small town centre businesses have said they are "surviving on a shoestring" as they remain open during lockdown.
We spoke to owners of independent firms in Bury St Edmunds centre that are still open as they sell essential goods, but are struggling due to the massive drop in footfall.
Footfall data for the town centre shows there has been a week on week drop of 75% over the last three weeks compared to 2020.
A new grant launched this week by West Suffolk Council aims to target support at these businesses which have not been forced to close, and may be missing out on financial help.
These include convenience stores, newsagents, post offices, bakers, butchers, food takeaways, petrol stations and market traders selling essential goods.
Catherine Winn is the owner of low-waste shop Clear to Sea in St John's Street, selling unpackaged food, toiletries and laundry products, among others.
She said the initial £10,000 Covid support grant from the government was a "massive help" to her and other small businesses, and she has applied for the new West Suffolk Council grant.
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But she added: "I'm just concerned that only surviving on a shoestring will not last forever if trade/footfall doesn’t increase.
"Taxes, VAT bills, alongside other everyday bills connected to a shop have to be paid.
"I believe the small Independent businesses should be supported as they may be the future when major chains have closed.
"Independent businesses offer support to the community. A personal service and a friendly face."
Clear to Sea, which is about to reach its second anniversary, enjoyed a successful first year of trade, but Mrs Winn said she was now down 65%.
She said she was only just able to pay the bills and added: "I don't know how much longer that can go on for.
"Had I been able to close I would have got a lot more money, but I have stayed open.
"I don't want to close. I'm serving people and giving them what they are after."
Hiral Patel bought Angel News newsagent on the usually bustling Abbeygate Street in October 2019 - just a few months before the pandemic began.
She said her her business had fallen by 80%.
"It's terrible," she said.
"In the summer time, it's so busy. You cannot hardly get parking. And now it's terribly bad. It's okay, I'm hoping that means people are following the rules."
She said she wouldn't have wanted to close, as Angel News has lots of regular customers and "I don't want to disappoint them".
"We have regular older customers who come for their newspapers. It's very important for them to read the news. And it makes them come out, otherwise they get more depressed," she said.
Angel News has so far received one Covid support grant from the government and will be applying for the new West Suffolk Council scheme.
"When you are surviving, anything is worth it," she said.
"It is a challenge. I like challenges, just not this long."
David Bell is the owner of specialist tobacconist and newsagent Lorfords in Central Walk.
Mr Bell, who bought the business about 15 years ago, said the dramatic drop in footfall was as it should be - as people have been asked to stay at home - but it is having a big impact on turnover.
He said: "It helps that many of our customers are very good and supportive about trying to continue buying from us - especially their specialist tobacco type things - rather than sourcing elsewhere.
"And if they have no other reason to be in town then they ring me and we do via mail order, but still we do lose turnover and especially miss all the normal passing trade.
"Overall, we can survive like this in the short term, albeit it is quite hard work, and certainly it would seem very churlish to complain when current and even near future prospects for certain other businesses in the retail sector continue to look so grim."
He said it was "great" they may be able to access the new grant scheme.
"Any support is welcome and will primarily allow us to pay suppliers who have given us extra time to pay things that originally would have fallen due this month," he said.
Mark Cordell, chief executive of the town's BID (Business Improvement District), said he was "really pleased" the council had taken steps to support these businesses.
He said what was crucial was helping businesses to survive so they are here when lockdown ends and can bounce back.
He added: "This is always a poor part of the year [for trade], but this could be devastating."
West Suffolk Council's new Additional Restrictions Grant is available for those West Suffolk businesses that can demonstrate that they have either been impacted by reduced footfall or other associated changes resulting from more people working from home.
Councillor John Griffiths, leader of West Suffolk Council, said: “We have created this new grant to try to help support some of those businesses during this current period of national lockdown."
Applications must be made on the council’s website before February 15, 2021. Businesses can apply here.