This should be boom time for Northern Ireland's best known resorts, but coronavirus has turned them into ghost towns. Linda Stewart finds out how businesses in Portrush, the north coast and Newcastle are riding out the pandemic lockdown
Portrush: The shops are shuttered, the amusements have ground to a halt and the only living creatures to be seen are the soaring gulls and an occasional dog walker.
This time last year, says Willie Gregg, you would have needed a shoehorn to get into the Harbour Bar in Portrush.
Last weekend would have been the North West 200 weekend, the much loved motor racing event that draws visitors to Northern Ireland's seaside resorts from all over the world, and the contrast between last year and now couldn't be more stark. The usually hiving Harbour Bar is a case in point.
"It's a vast contrast," says the bar manager.
"This time last year you needed a shoehorn to get into the bar - things have changed dramatically. But my glass is always half full, never half empty and it's out of our control.
"We've been locked down since it was made official on Friday, March 20. It's been a long time since there's been a pint of Guinness poured in the Harbour Bar - basically we're all sitting ready to go."
In the meantime, Willie has been in lockdown with his fiancee Stephanie Holmes, has been looking after his 88-year-old mum and has been rebuilding his garden, which he dubs 'the Coronagarden'.
"When I go to bring shopping to my mum, I notice it's a lot easier to get parked today than it would have been last year. I would say there is absolutely no problem getting a parking space outside the Harbour Bar this week," he says.
But while the resort has been missing out on the usual North West crowds, Willie is heartened by the messages of support he has been receiving from all the world.
"I've had emails this morning from Italy, one from Blackpool, one from Sweden - the racing fraternity have all sent messages saying 'we're looking forward to seeing you next year'. I've had literally hundreds of messages from people from all over the province and further afield - I had one email last week from Japan.
"With the world in the state it's in, it's nice to see that people haven't forgotten about us and they are missing the Harbour Bar as much as they are missing the race.
"They're people that have been bringing their families to the North West for generations - I've seen up to three generations of families that have gradually become regular North West customers and it's nice that they come and that they keep in touch from all over the world."
Willie says he's missing his customers and is looking forward to seeing them once things reopen.
"People are very responsible, I've noticed, and they understand. But it's out of our hands - we're waiting for the guidelines to get back to normal as soon as possible," he says.
"The North West will come back next year, bigger and better than ever before. The sad thing is that it's been the best racing weather for the North West week in 20 years - and no blinking races.
"We've just got to take it on the chin and hope everybody survives and we get back to normal."
Richard Connor (40), who owns Causeway Boats, which runs fishing, sightseeing and foodie boat tours round the north coast, says this time last year the imminent arrival of the Open saw financial investment pouring into Portrush.
"There was a big financial spend on the town and businesses were putting private money into the town," he says.
"We were partnering with the Tourist Board and doing a lot of media activities such as the NBC Sports Gold channel, for North West weekend. This must be the least busy North West 200 weekend in history, I would imagine.
"It's going to hurt, the lack of footfall. When people are here for the week, they're looking for something to do and they want to experience the place and meet the people - our business is a good way of doing that.
"It really was a huge contrast to now. The town is absolutely a ghost town - there's a few locals walking about."
Not only are the tourism businesses locked down, he says, but even when the town reopens, businesses will have to contend with the 14-day quarantine for foreign travellers - "it's game over for tourism until that is lifted".
In the meantime the business is mothballed and one of the boats, which is approaching its 10th birthday, is being rewired and re-plumbed.
"We're pre-loading routine maintenance for the next four or five year to buy ourselves time when it comes back again. Once the recovery comes we'll be in a good position to start again," Richard says.
Richard was concerned that some Stormont ministers have given out mixed messages suggesting leisure activities were opening up here again. "The public hear of that and they think the town is open now - they're ringing and asking 'can we go fishing next Tuesday'," he says.
"That brought a lot of disappointment and was a truly wasted opportunity to get a positive message out, which so quickly turned negative."
Richard says the question of how to switch tourism on again is a big concern.
"An issue for us is how to phase reopening, keeping in mind the health advice and the opinions of local residents - I think large crowds at events will not be welcome for the time being in our communities.
"The big five in this town are Barry's, the Ramore, Kelly's, the White House and the caravan parks and until they are up and running, Portrush won't be up and running. As smaller but not less significant businesses, we won't function properly until these larger businesses are back in the game."
Keith Walls (43), of Causeway Coast Rental which manages around 500 properties across the north coast, says the arrival of the pandemic couldn't have happened at a worse time for holiday lets.
"This sort of kicks off our season - Easter is the first period and then we look forward to the North West and then summer," he says.
"The North West is huge - it attracts so many people from all over the world."
The company's portfolio includes around 350 holiday lets and the remainder are long term rentals, most of which are currently in use. Almost all the employees are in furlough and the only work the company can carry out on properties at the moment is emergency work.
"We've had no guidance - we're just watching the news like everybody else," Keith says.
"It's very quiet around at the moment, although I have seen it picking up a wee bit in the last week or two - there are more people about.
"I don't know if there might be some movement at some point. Garden centres are reopening and hopefully we are getting close too - we just have to wait and see.
"We do have a very high domestic market anyway, which is mainly Belfast and Lisburn, and we're hopeful that that market will be there when things begin to settle down. The beauty of it is that we have no communal areas, no bars or lobbies - you're in a private house - and this is maybe the only form of tourism that we are going to have left for a while."
Keith says the long-term outlook for the company will depend on when the restrictions are lifted.
"It depends on the timing of when we are back to letting properties again. If it opens before summer it won't be as detrimental for the business," he says.
"They're aiming for July, it seems - if that is the case, we would be quite fortunate.
"We would get a bit of peak season out of it, but not as long as it would have been and not like last year when we had the Open here."
The Co Down resort of Newcastle would normally be packed with weekend visitors, day trippers and walkers exploring the Mourne Mountains, but Myrtle Macauley (72), who manages Beach House B&B with her husband John (77), isn't taking any chances.
The guest house normally opens in March and operates through until October.
But this year, they opened at the start of March and had one visitor before shutting up shop again.
"It's very, very quiet in Newcastle. Up until this week, it was like a ghost town, just the main supermarkets and a hardware shop open - no coffee shops open, no ice cream, nothing like that," Myrtle says.
"I had people booked for Easter who stay with me every year and I rang them to say we wouldn't be open - and they were surprised. But there would be no point in coming, because there would be nothing going on."
The mum-of-five is currently in lockdown with John, who has undergone cancer treatment and isn't allowed to go out for 12 weeks.
"People have just accepted it - what can you do? You put your health first. We realised it's something we all have to face together," she says.
"There were a couple of weekends over Easter when it got quite busy and the locals were irate, because they felt strangers were coming into the town and bringing germs with them.
"There hasn't been any guidance from the Tourist Board.
"When you see the big hotels closed, you realise ours isn't as dramatic as that."
Wherever you go, it's the same story - the empty sea front in Portstewart, shuttered shops in Portrush, a deserted Castlerock and a silent Newcastle.
Michelle Graham (47), of Graham's ice cream shop in the town, says the shop has been closed since early March and food delivery hasn't been an option.
"We make our ice cream fresh - we start with the liquid form and mix it into fresh ice cream. It's not like ice cream that can sit in a freezer for six months - it's a very soft, old-fashioned recipe.
"There are other people doing that and fair play to them, but this didn't really work for our product so we didn't," she says.
The pandemic arrived just at the time when they were emerging from a long winter and training their new staff for the busy summer season, she says.
"We've missed Easter, we've missed May Day. It's the start of coming out of a long winter and trying to get prepared for the summer season, and we've missed all that," she says.
But she says there was little guidance about locking down - instead the town businesses talked to each other about what to do.
"It was Mothering Sunday and it was like a domino effect in Newcastle. There was no guidance other than business people getting together and deciding to pull down the shutters."
While the family do have another shop in Rathfriland which is classed as a key business because it incorporates a newsagency, they decided to lock it down anyway, and it only reopened last Wednesday.
"People are very compliant and understand the social distancing, and they know not to come in groups - everybody knows what they are doing now," Michelle says.
"I've found it hasn't been as stressful as I thought it would be."
She has been taking photos of Newcastle in lockdown: "You walk down Newcastle's main street and it looks so different. It's bizarre to see all these shutters down."
But Michelle says reopening the resort will be a difficult balancing act. Even now, she says, the car parks remain closed but the promenade is busy with walkers.
"I don't know how Newcastle is going to reopen and not be very, very busy. I think the locals are worried about a huge influx of people," she says.
"I think seaside resorts will be a little reluctant to open just as quickly. I think the locals are nervous and they are the lifeblood of the town as well, so it's a hard one."