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"I'd rather have stayed shut than reopen under lockdown rules" - Sunderland businessman reacts as last covid restrictions are lifted

A Sunderland businessman says he would rather have remained shut for two years than be forced to reopen under covid regulations.

By Kevin Clark
Tuesday, 22nd February 2022, 2:59 pm

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Tony Griffths is chairman of LGT Developments, which runs a number of venues in the city, including Chaplins, Ttonic and The Point.

Commenting as the Government confirmed it is ending the last remaining coronavirus rules in England from this Thursday, February 24, he said enforcing the rules on social distancing and mask wearing had been a constant challenge.

"It was very, very hard to operate under the severe restrictions – they were designed by scientists and not people from the hospitality sector,” he said.

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"We found that the younger ones did not want to stick to the rules – you are always rebellious when you are young.

"It was very difficult. The amount of aggravation I have had has been horrible – people would get really nasty and I would have to say to them, ‘I don’t make the rules, my staff don’t make the rules but we have to enforce them or we get closed down’.

“It was the hardest I have ever worked in this industry. I would rather have stayed closed than reopen under those restrictions and I think 95 per cent of people would say the same.”

The restrictions and uncertainty over repeated lockdowns had also made it difficult to retain staff: “We lost a lot of good people in our sector, “ said Tony.

Tony Griffiths in The Point

"Some businesses made their staff redundant straightaway – we didn’t. We paid them the 80 per cent under furlough and we paid their National Insurance Insurance, because we wanted to keep them.

"But it was difficult because they were effectively having to become security guards and door supervisors, in addition to doing their own jobs.”

While the national furlough scheme had helped cover the cost of wages, a lack of support from Government in other areas had left operators with no choice but to reopen despite the challenges, said Tony: “The problem was the support was not enough for big operators,” he said.

“It was fine for the little ones because their overheads are low, but we have a venue that was costing us £12,000 a month to keep closed and the Government was giving us £2,500 a month. We still had to pay electricity, we still had to pay National Insurance, we still had to pay rent.

The Point was saved by an Arts Council grant

"As far as I’m concerned, the amount of support you received should have been based on your tax returns for previous years.

“If it had not been for a grant from the Arts Council, the Point would have closed down.”

The event side of the business was still struggling, with older customers more reluctant to come out and a number of ticket suppliers having gone out of business.

“It has been particularly difficult in the events industry,” said Tony. "It has been tougher in the events industry than it has in the pub sector.

Monwar Hussain has seen the return of many of his customers

"We have had ticket providers going bust because they have had nothing to sell. We have had a few queries about tickets that have been bought before the provider has gone bust.”

Monwar Hussian, who owns the three-time Sunderland Echo Curry House of the Year Yuvraaj in Ashbrooke, said he had been lucky to have the support of loyal customers, most of whom had returned after successive lockdowns- but some people were still nervous about coming out.

“I am very, very grateful to all our customers – we have been very busy,” he said. “Everyone has come together and supported us.

"There are a lot more people coming out now but what we have found is there are still people who are not 100 per cent sure, who are still a little bit nervous.

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"They are still coming out, but when they do, they will ask if they can possibly sit in a quieter part of the restaurant. It is understandable, because for for two years now, not coming out has been their normal.

Yuvraaj

"Hopefully they will get a little bit more confident now the rules have been lifted.”

Sunderland Business Improvement District chief executive Sharon Appleby said she was pleased to see the final restrictions lifted but it was important to remember that coronavirus had not gone away.

"It’s good news that life is now getting back to normal and we all have to face the reality that Covid will remain part of our lives for the foreseeable future,” she said.

“The safety and well being of people across the city will, of course, always remain a priority and there is no reason why anyone who feels nervous or is vulnerable should not continue to take precautions that make them feel comfortable.”

While the last two years had been tough for everyone, there had been some good things to emerge from the pandemic, said Sharon, with people having become more appreciative of the businesses on their doorstep and the pleasures of High Street shopping: “We hope that one legacy of covid will remain – that people will continue with the support they have given to businesses across the city and keep shopping local, to ensure our economy continues to thrive.

“We are very aware that people’s mental health has been affected and we are working on a range of activity for this year that will hopefully encourage people to come back out, socialise together and enjoy what’s on offer both inside and outside in the city centre.”

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Sharon Appleby