Northern Ireland today led the way for the rest of the UK by becoming the first region to sanction the unconditional return of its retail sector.
After nearly three months of lockdown, it was a damp, quiet and rather cautious start to the supposed blanket reopening of all non-essential shops.
Shopping centres had been given the green light on Thursday to follow big outlets such as Ikea and B & Q, drive-in McDonald’s and Starbucks outlets and garden centres, that had already opened for business.
The announcement, however, proved to be too soon for some retailers and staff who couldn’t arrange childcare at such short notice; Castlecourt, unlike Victoria Square, remained closed, save for its outlets which have street entrances.
It’s expected that most stores will be fully functioning by early next week, as will their counterparts across the Irish Sea.
Michelle Greeves, Victoria Square centre manager, told the Belfast Telegraph that "it has been a long 12 weeks, but today is a great day for Northern Ireland retail".
“Fifteen stores are ready to go today, which we’re really pleased with, and on Monday we’ll see up to 20 more opening," she said.
“What’s even better is that, pretty soon, stores will be launching their summer sales, so we’re looking forward to a bumper period.”
Most early customers in Belfast city centre were already aware that, with strict social distancing still in force, their favourite shops would bear little resemblance to the ones they frequented before the lockdown began in March.
The ‘new normal’ on the high street involves perspex screens, blue-arrow signage, hand sanitiser stations, heavily protected staff, less browsing and, especially for larger stores, the inevitable queues, such as that at J D Sports on Donegall Place in early morning.
And the shopping experience will not include a visit to Belfast’s myriad of coffee shops which, like restaurants and pubs, have still not been given a date to resume trading. But at least some toilet facilities, including those at Victoria Square, were available.
Well known local artist Terry Bradley, who has a studio/store in Victoria Square, said customers had been knocking on his door since 9am.
“We’ve been setting up the studio since early this morning, and it was fantastic to see people outside, waiting for us to open again,” he said.
“The shops’ reopening will give people a real release, because the lockdown has been very difficult. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see people in the streets jumping for joy. This is about getting your life back and we’re really looking forward to being part of it.”
Retailers were informed by the Stormont Executive earlier this week that, with Covid-19 transmission levels estimated as manageable and death rates from coronavirus in the low single figures, they could finally roll their shutters back up.
It’s a nervous time for both traders and shoppers, with the former already reeling from months of lost business and unsold stock and many of the latter wondering if all the hassle is really worth it with the convenience of on-line purchasing just a few key strokes away.
But with retail accounting for over 15% of employment here, Executive ministers felt it was safe to accelerate the easing of lockdown measures and thus restart a local economy seriously damaged by the outbreak of the deadly disease.
Emily Cross, a Belfast nurse, had treated herself to some new fitness gear at JD Sports.
“I actually came in to visit the Apple store because my phone’s broken, but it doesn’t open until Monday, so I bought myself some running stuff instead,” she said.
“It felt good to be buying something other than essentials, and it’s great that our shops are reopening.
“Things are going so much better now and it’s great so see more people out and about.”
Satellite installer David Glover, from Newtownards, was shopping with his 12-year-old son Kailan and had been looking forward to this day for weeks.
“Kailan wants to go to Fresh Garbage to get some new clothes and he can’t wait,” said his father.
“We’re on our way now. He has £30 to spend. I’m looking for a pair of jeans but I’ve got a credit card, so who knows what I’ll end up with.
“It’s good to be out and about again, even though it’s bucketing down.”
Mr Glover added that he was impressed with the social distancing measures that had been put in place by shops in the mall and by Victoria Square itself.”
Belfast couple Mark and Anna Fulfordy were in town for the first time since lockdown.
“We came in for 9am, specifically for one shop, but it doesn’t open until later,” said Mr Fulfordy, a security guard.
Anna added: “It’s a bit strange not being able to go for a cup of coffee while we’re waiting for more of the shops to reopen.”
Belfast cleaner Margaret Turnbull said she was looking forward to treating herself to some new clothes.
“I’ve got a fair budget, and it will be nice to get something for myself for a change,” she said.
“I know I probably won’t be able to use the changing rooms, so I am prepared to bring some items of clothing home to try on. But it will be good to see and feel the material, rather than just looking at things online.”