Will there be a moment when we emerge, blinking, from the shadow thrown over all our lives by the coronavirus, to see how it has altered the places we live and work in? Given the variegated nature of the pandemic’s effects, and the fact that its ending will probably be gradual rather than sudden, it is more likely that the impact will strike us bit by bit – a closed shop here, a boarded-up restaurant there, an empty pavement or shuttered building where once there were people and life.
Town centres and high streets were already known to be in a state of flux – which is a polite way of saying that, due to online shopping, many if not most were in decline. It is nearly two years since Sir John Timpson delivered a government-ordered report on high streets that asserted “an increasing need to encourage social interaction” in our age of screens. This week’s announcement by Cineworld that it is closing, for the moment, all 127 of its British cinemas – as well as more than 500 American ones – is a grim indicator of just how much harder that task has now become.
Around 5,500 staff in the UK, and thousands more cleaners and contractors, are set to lose their jobs. Since many were employed on zero-hours terms, they may receive no redundancy pay. Coming hard on the heels of the closures of hundreds of restaurants, including household names such as Pizza Express, and four Waitrose stores, the decision by the world’s second-largest cinema chain (a British business, started in Stevenage) to shut up shop begs the question if and when we can hope for some form of normality to return.
For years, town centre revivalists have argued that leisure operators such as Cineworld, which also owns Picturehouse cinemas, are the logical inheritors of premises no longer needed by retailers. Experiences would take the place of objects as people switched to spending more on doing things (eating, bowling, spectating) and less on buying them. Although driven by the rise of online giants including Amazon, it was anticipated that this change could bring benefits. Environmentalists looked forward to a reduction in the waste associated with fast fashion. Others pictured streetscapes in which public services such as libraries or health centres were better integrated with businesses.
The 150 experts recruited by the high streets task force as advisers have their work cut out if they are to keep such hopes alive. Even amid mounting gloom, there are some bright spots. While London has been badly affected, due to its reliance on tourists and public transport, seaside towns did well over the summer. The supermarkets Aldi and Morrisons plan to recruit thousands of new workers, and the £1.57bn emergency fund due to be distributed to arts organisations will, with luck, tide many of them over.
The health of these people-facing, service-sector organisations, whether public or private, matters enormously to their employees. But it matters to the rest of us too. By emptying out the spaces – shops, cinemas, market squares – that we used to share, and forcing us to spend more time at home, the pandemic has made us less public and more private. An end to this anti-social chapter and reclamation of the outside world of films, friends and fun cannot come soon enough.