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Story and photos by Gemma Handy

From the shuttered-up windows to the dearth of shoppers, the tourist heart of St John’s is a far cry from the bustle of pre-pandemic days.

A clothes designer is stitching facemasks in lieu of garments in her Redcliffe Quay boutique. A manicurist optimistically watches the door for customers. And two adjacent restaurants are open for lunch but diners are thin on the ground.

Dotted around are the omnipresent sanitisers and washing stations as life adjusts to a new normal.

Reopening for business after several weeks of forced closures just as low season swings into gear was never going to be a walk in the park.

Those that have resumed work say sales are down by more than half compared to the same time last year.

Designer Dara Baird says she reopened her fashion and handcrafts shop Dara Dara as soon as government lifted restrictions on non-essential businesses.

Still, “it’s been very, very quiet”, she tells Observer.

She added stylish facemasks to her assortment of handbags, head wraps and dresses shortly after the coronavirus broke out.

“But now every other person is selling masks too so that has added some challenges,” Baird explains. “I have no idea how things will go over the next few months but I don’t think we will be back to normal any time soon.”

Next door, Anita Baichu has been back at work doing manicures and pedicures for the last four weeks.

 “It’s up and down. We get one week that’s okay but then the next week is really bad. Business has dropped by about 50 percent,” Baichu says.

“I’m just hoping it will pick back up in a couple of months and that we will get some tourists. But I’m not expecting it to go back to how it was before for a while,” she adds.

Most eateries in the historic quarter are open again, albeit for limited hours.

Stephanie Cordice from Cutie’s restaurant resumed take-out service a month ago, followed by a handful of tables for lunch last week.  

She plans to serve dinner again from this week after government further reduced curfew hours.

But much will depend on how customers’ wallets have fared.

“Many people don’t have the money to come out just to lime anymore,” Cordice concedes. “But everyone is suffering so we have to just be thankful for everything we get and hope that things recover soon.”

Strict hygiene measures to stave off a second wave of Covid-19 have changed the way business operates, she explains.

“Customers are very aware of what they have to do and they wash their hands before they come in,” she says pointing to a sink by the restaurant’s front door.

“When they leave the table we sanitise everything. The rest of the time we let them relax and enjoy themselves,” Cordice adds.

At his store opposite, Ron Howell – aka Guava De Artist – sits at the counter surrounded by a selection of his eye-catching prints and T-shirts.

He’s using the downtime to market his work overseas.

“Things are not booming,” he admits. “But I’m hopeful; people will always buy art.”

Michelle Bates, of jewellery and gift shop Silver Chelles, has stayed closed since the lockdown came into force in late March.

She tells Observer she has kept herself busy creating handmade pieces in preparation for reopening early next month.

“Hopefully there will be more customers around then. It’s pretty dismal and soul-destroying to sit in a shop and have no customers. Fingers crossed people start to feel confident enough to come out again soon,” she says.

Over in the cruise centre of Heritage Quay which has seen no ships for several weeks, Island Beach Bums is one of few stores open to foot traffic.

The beachwear and accessories shop reopened last month. Since the resumption of commercial flights on June 4, tourists are sparse but returning, says sales rep Teondra London.

The message that all who enter must adhere to health and safety guidelines is being received loud and clear.

“You see customers looking for the sanitiser as soon as they come in, or they will ask you how many people are allowed in at a time. They have really been programmed to do certain things,” London adds.

Okorie Matthew, of jewellery store Sterlings, says the company is staying optimistic about the road ahead while acknowledging that a spike in virus cases could see non-essential businesses closed again as quickly as before.

Customers are not allowed entry unless they are wearing a facemask and sanitise their hands, he explains.

Meanwhile, business is “terrible” – and seeing the usually busy duty-free area silent is “depressing”.

“With slow season just starting there’s a possibility it may just stay like this. But at least we are open, unlike many others, so it’s better than nothing.

 “This season had potential but this whole situation has destroyed everything. It puts a dampener on your spirit,” Matthew adds. “But we have to live with it and try and make the best of things.”

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