‘It feels really special’: Manchester venues optimistic as doors reopen

On the long march out of lockdown, this was probably the most significant day yet. A day of reopenings and reacquaintances after months of restrictions and rules.

And while the mood in Manchester seemed much sunnier than it has for some time – with museums, galleries, cinemas and music venues opening their doors – there were unmistakable clouds too.

In nearby Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen, the variant of the Covid virus first detected in India is spreading fast.

Not fast enough (yet) to spoil the atmosphere at Ezra & Gil cafe on Hilton Street, where the mood at 9.30am was mostly one of relief.

But Covid was clearly on the minds of some customers.

Founded in 2014, the space is a former clothing showroom in Manchester’s bohemian Northern Quarter.

Some people were eating inside, but there were still a couple of tables free. Others preferred to sit outside, defying the morning drizzle.

“It’s really good to be open and nice to see some old faces that we gained during lockdown,” said the manager, Liz Harper.

“We’ve stuck to all the safety measures we’ve introduced since the first lockdown and we’re still at half capacity, as we want people to feel safe. It’s not ideal for business but I don’t think it’s a bad idea if it encourages people to feel safer.”

Harper said she was “slightly concerned that there’s a risk of Manchester going back into a local lockdown”, but said she would cope with whatever was thrown at her.

“No one’s expressed concerns so far this morning but we’ve all seen the news and if it takes a local lockdown to nip it in the bud, then so be it.”

About a mile away at Home Manchester, the city’s centre for contemporary theatre, film, art and music, visitors had two new exhibitions and a full slate of film screenings to choose from.

“During awards season I try and go to the cinema twice a week, so I booked this ticket straight away,” said 50-year-old civil servant Caroline Wilson as she waited patiently to see Minari, one of this year’s Oscar-winners. “I can’t put into words how happy I am to be back at Home.”

Charlie Coffey, 21, a student at the University of Manchester, was equally excited. He’d come to see the Soul Journey to Truth exhibition, after a final year at university blighted by Covid.

“You take for granted all these wonderful things you can do out in the city,” he said.

Coffey’s mother, Kath Booth, 49, said that while it was great to “have a wander around” she was concerned about some of the conflicting health guidance issued in the last few days.

“I’ve just had my second vaccine, so I feel much safer than before but I saw Jeremy Farrar said he wouldn’t eat indoors just yet, and I did wonder if we should wait another week before coming out.”

Despite being open indoors, many Covid-safety measures remained in place at Home, with visitors being asked to practise social distancing, regularly sanitise their hands and respect the venue’s one-way system.

Dave Moutrey, the director and CEO of Home, said: “After being closed for 241 days, today feels really special.

“Once the step-by-step plan was in place, we’ve been able to move into a much more focused period of planning to get an exhibition on the wall and the building ready for the public.

“We’re one of the most visited tourist attractions in Greater Manchester, with almost a million visitors a year, so it’s vitally important to the city both economically and socially that we’re back open.

“More than anything though, it’s been great to see the joy on our customers’ faces as we’ve welcomed them back into the building for the first time today.”

That joy was clear enough for this writer – greeting a friend at Home with a bear hug, the first for more than a year.

Not far from Home is the Deaf Institute, a bar and music venue on Oxford Road across from Manchester Metropolitan University.

Manchester’s music venues have been a springboard for a number of bands such as the Smiths, Oasis and more recently Blossoms.

“It’s been a massive effort to get the venue Covid-safe, and we’re looking forward to running a full programme of DJ sets, album playbacks and music-documentary screenings,” said Natalie Wardle, 27, the sales and marketing manager.

Full live shows will have to wait until 21 June – at the earliest.

“There’s a lot of complications that prevent us from doing a proper gig at the moment,” she said.

At the Dog Bowl, a bowling alley and arcade on Whitworth Street West, Beth Tyson, 27, was sizing up the pins with four of her housemates.

In truth, the Dog Bowl hadn’t been her first choice.

“I booked it about two weeks ago,” said the IT sales professional from Bolton said.

“We were supposed to be in Tenerife, so I thought, let’s do something else instead.

“We’re all in our mid-20s, and it’s been really hard missing out an important year of socialising, so being out like this at last is surreal.”

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