What York must do to ensure the city’s reopening is a success

York BID Executive Director Andrew Lowson on the two crucial phases needed to get the city moving again

York city centre is preparing to reopen again, and there’s a real sense of anticipation in the air.

It’s important that we get this crucial stage right, both for the health of everyone involved, and to make York’s recovery as smooth and swift as possible.

For me, we are looking at two distinct phases in the city reopening, which bring very specific challenges.

Phase 1: Building confidence

Non-essential shops are allowed to trade again from Monday (15 June) and from a survey we understand around 60%  in York are planning to open their doors again, with a further 20% later in June

This phase is all about building confidence – for staff, shoppers and visitors. 

I was pleased to see how many of the partner conversations – involving City of York Council, the BID, the Federation of Small Business, Make it York, the Chamber of Commerce and others – had fed into the council’s Economic Recovery, Transport and Place Strategy

Its plan for a people-focused retail heart, with extended footstreets and a clear system to help guide people around the city centre while maintaining social distance, provides a positive framework around which the city can coalesce.

These first few days and weeks are all about getting the basics right. That means

  1. Giving people the confidence to access York city centre
  2. Having the right offer for them when they come
  3. Ensuring they feel safe and comfortable throughout their trip.

Some of this is already in hand. For example, public toilets are reopening from Monday, and we understand additional provision will add capacity. Clear signage is also being put in place. 

The council can only do so much of course. Each trader has their own contribution to make. I was heartened, during a meeting with the retail sector group, to see how York’s business owners place the safety and wellbeing of their staff as their foremost concern.

If they do decide it is safe for their staff to return, those same business owners are then responsible for ensuring their customers feel safe too – with an appointment structure where necessary, and clear guidance on travel through the shop. And they will need to work with their neighbouring businesses on, for example, queuing space outside the premises. Many have already shown me great examples of how they will do this, with items such as complimentary gloves and masks available for the customer to use and take away.

None of us has ever done this before, so mistakes will be made. But York must be ready to learn from any teething troubles, and to adapt quickly. 

It is vital to ensure people feel the city centre is a safe, supportive and welcoming environment. If they don’t, they will take their trade elsewhere. If they enjoy their experience, they will return and recommend the experience to their friends.

Phase 2: Curating public space

After the initial reopening of the city centre, we need to turn our thoughts to the best use of York’s public space in the coming weeks.

This is particularly important given many city businesses may struggle given their own confined space – and this applies particularly to the hospitality sector.

How can we use some of the squares and wider boulevards to benefit businesses? Can we partner with the owners of city centre green spaces to open these up to traders too?

Again, the council is making some positive noises about working with the police on extending licensing areas to help cafés, bars and restaurants reopen. National guidance will dictate much of this and BIDs are lobbying government.

It is also something the York BID is ideally placed to support – first by linking businesses to relevant landowners, and then putting together tangible offers to encourage people to visit.

Time, though, is of the essence. Given that the weather turns darker and colder come October, we have less than four months to maximise the use of al fresco York.

 So that’s where we are, as the city prepares to emerge cautiously out of lockdown. To make the most of the next critical few weeks, York has to be on the top of its game. But if we all work together, it will be.