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Behind London’s shopfronts, coronavirus lockdown forces tough calculations

Exmouth Market, a two-block stretch of businesses in central London, has been jolted by Britain’s coronavirus lockdown. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Behind every shopfront, people are calculating: their money, their futures, the possibility that their livelihoods — reliant on the sale of lager and ale, big-wheel bikes or creams perfumed with lavender — could be killed off by a spooky virus.

How much longer can they cover rent? Can they persuade creditors to give them a breather? Will a tax holiday tide them over for months — even a year — of lockdown?

The merchants of Exmouth Market, a two-block stretch of central London known for its bustling food stalls and independent shops, have no answers. Their street is near silent but for birdsong.

“I’ve anticipated a lot in my life,” said Gareth Kerr, who closed his popular sports pub in March and sent home a dozen bartenders and cooks. “But coronavirus wasn’t one of them.”

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“The not knowing is the worst,” said Charles Perkins, whose East Central Cycles shop has been deemed essential by a city desperate to divert passengers from infection-conducive trains and buses. “I’m open, but I can’t make plans. This is the time of year when I’d be buying for next year. But production is messed up. Shipping is completely messed up. And I can’t decide to sign contracts if I don’t know the cash flow.”

The shops of Exmouth Market, like small businesses in many countries around the world, are trying to reinvent themselves for the pandemic era and beyond, and they’re agonizing about whether they’ll make it through to the other side of this.

A couple Exmouth Market restaurants have turned into temporary takeaways. The hardware store has kept busy. But this is a pedestrian street of originals — a tattoo parlor with a global following, a barbershop called Barber Streisand that offers piano lessons, a jeweler who bikes to his metal workshop with his dog riding in a cargo seat — where few owners have deep pockets or magical ways of thinking past the covid-19 pandemic.

“I don’t know how businesses like mine can survive if the norm is social distancing,” said pub owner Kerr.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered people away from pubs and clubs on March 20 and announced a broader lockdown three days later. On Monday, in his first appearance since recovering from covid-19, Johnson acknowledged that the coronavirus has sucker-punched the economy but made clear that restrictions had to remain in place.

In Britain, more than 26,000 people have died of the virus. Though epidemiologists say the country is past the peak of the first wave, the risk of another outbreak remains high.

“I refuse to throw away the efforts and sacrifice of the British people,” Johnson said. “I ask you to contain your impatience.”

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The British government has offered hundreds of billions of dollars in loans and aid and erased a major business tax. Still, small shops like those in Exmouth Market have been left twitchy.

Rent looms over everyone. Kerr paid a quarter of his yearly 48,000 pounds (about $60,000) rent last week, but he worries about the next due date. His landlord may defer a payment, as the government has urged, but Kerr says he needs more flexibility than that.

“The landlord asked us to send over our certified accounts so he could evaluate,” he said. “I told them: The math is simple. No income.”

Paying staff has been possible only with the help of a government furlough plan. Through June, the government will pay up to 80 percent, to a maximum of 2,500 pounds ($3,100) a month, to cover wages for workers sent home but kept on payroll while stores are closed. Kerr, and other business owners who applied, said the first furlough money dropped Monday into their bank accounts.

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“We had to bankroll this for three or four weeks, and it was complicated. But it happened; the money is there,” said Kerr, whose full- and part-time staff were covered.

But what happens if people can’t return to work anytime soon? If the economic pain continues?

A study published this week by the independent National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggests that those furloughed in Britain during the coronavirus crisis — Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak put the number at more than 4 million workers — should now be counted as unemployed to reflect the risk.

“What is coming in the labour market is horrendous,” the study anticipates. If those now furloughed can’t return to work, Britain will face deep double-digit joblessness by June, closer to what will be seen in United States, the study said.

Recovery in Britain will happen “if companies are solvent and have a market to sell into,” the study said. “This becomes a tougher call, the longer the lockdown persists.”

Kerr looks at his foosball tables and wonders whether customers will want to touch the handles. Perkins washes his hands between bike repairs and holds prospective buyers at bay with pinewood pedestals. Elaine Everitt is planning an overhaul of her herbal dispensary, Pippettes.

“We are going to change to an old-fashioned apothecary. Everything will be behind glass cases,” she said. “That is the only way we can reopen. We’re going to have to wear overalls and gloves, and we will make it all part of the experience.”

Everitt, an acupuncturist and osteopath who has been working in the fields of Suffolk County since she was forced to close her shop, said she will spend at least 5,000 pounds ($6,200) to reopen — not cheap, but better than the alternative.

“Some people have buried their heads in the sand, not wanting to deal with it,” she said. “But I’ve had other businesses, including some that failed. This is giving us a chance to reevaluate everything.”

Quality Wines fumbled its first day of turning from a chummy wine bar into a retail store. When it reopened a week into the lockdown, familiar customers swept in. Manager Gus Gluck was happy but unnerved. “No one paid attention to social distancing. I thought, ‘Do people not watch the news?’ ” The store quickly posted limits, and Gluck mulled over how to channel the enthusiasm.

The 30-year-old came up with virtual wine tastings. He pings customers the pick of the week. They sign up online, and he decants small jars of wine — usually couriered to homes — and holds court on Saturdays through Internet links. People enjoy the winey half hours, although some confide they miss the camaraderie at Quality Wines. He says, gently, those days are over.

“This is the kind of place where people hugged. I tell them: That is gone. We will keep going. But you have to imagine a different world.”

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