Covid: The impact on a city

a man sleeps on a train wearing a face mask
The idea of wearing a mask once seemed strange, but now it’s part of everyday life.

2020 was the year the UK froze as shops closed their doors, pubs turned off the taps and families were forced to stay apart, as the nations key workers aided the battle against the coronavirus pandemic. 

None more so than in the city of Leeds, known for its strong diverse community, the city like all others was faced with an unexpected change that no community was ready for. From big brand shops, independent stores, the community centres and the people that make Leeds, each has been impacted by the pandemic in unimaginable ways. 

Now 16 months later, as Leeds gradually begins to re-open its doors to the public, the real damaged causes by months of closure, is now being discovered. 

A recovering economy 

The city of Leeds is most notably known for its historical buildings, vibrant nightlife and renowned shopping scene. But when the cites population returned to its popular centre, they were faced with abandoned stores and forgotten nightclubs. 

With the closure of the high street seeing the economy take a massive hit, marking a record of a 9.8% drop, resulting in the lowest decrease of the pound since 1921. But it wasn’t just the economy that was injured. 

In Leeds, well-known nightclubs Mission and Tunnel shut the doors for good as well as the once-iconic department store Debenhams which is now a vast empty space. Much like popular high-street fashion brand Topshop which saw all nations stores close as retail company Arcadia Group fell into administration. 

People walk around the now empty Debenhams
Debenhams was once a staple part of the British high streets, now it remains an empty building lost to the pandemic.

Though big names brands could not withstand the damage caused by the pandemic, it seems as though thanks to the aid of funding and local organisations, independent stores came back stronger and feeling more supported than ever.

Like back in December when an online directory was set up by organisation #buyleeds, to help customers find local independent shops, cafes and bars that were offering delivery or collection across Leeds. Within two weeks over 900 small shops had signed up. 

One store that signed up to the directory was Released Records, a small vinyl store based in the Corn Exchange. Before the pandemic Released was thriving seeing a daily influx of loyal customers, but when the first lockdown hit the store was devastated. Manager Tony Green discussed how their shop and his business partner Marko Crossley were affected by the pandemic:

an overlook of the cork exchange as people walk around
The Corn Exchange is home to many local independent shops, including Released Records.

“At first badly, the shop closed, Marko had no income and our online offering was not ready. We couldn’t access stock as the Corn Exchange was closed. We ended up with a bounceback loan that we are about to start paying off. During the second lockdown, I could only access the Corn Exchange on certain days as it wasn’t fully closed like back in lockdown one”. 

Although the store took a beating, they were able to keep sales high after opening their online store and offering hand-delivered records. Since re-opening back in April, the team at Released Records have found that their customers have been more loyal than ever before: 

“The community of vinyl lovers have been buying our selection for sure. The public has supported us and we’re very thankful for anyone who bought a Released record during the lockdown.”

a man empty's a bin next to the now empty Topshop
Another store lost to the pandemic, as all Topshop’s across the Country close after the damage of the falling economy.

Released Records wasn’t the only independent store that took a hit by the falling economy and the closed streets. Based in the heart of the city centre Our Handmade Collective is a collection of 74 small businesses that use the shop to sell their products. Like so many other stores, owners Claire Riley and Natalie Entwistle were not prepared for the sudden closure of their beloved store:

“When we had to close, we had no idea what would happen. We didn’t have an online shop presence at that time as it was a conscious business decision not to do so and we didn’t know just how long we would be closed. We lost almost all of our income overnight and had to work really hard and really fast to try and combat that while trying to remain positive and keeping ourselves and our families safe.”

When shops were given the green light to re-open, the pair expected that there would be a rush of eager shoppers to their small shop, but unfortunately found that some days they would go without seeing any customers. The worst came for the two businesswomen when the second lockdown was announced in November. What was expected to the busiest and most important months for the shop was instead the quietest for the local store. When it was declared shops could once again re-open, the two had hoped they could make up for their lost earnings, but their hope was short-lived when a third lockdown was announced:

“We opened for one day in January 2021 and then lockdown three was announced. Lockdown three felt particularly tough on everyone and morale was at rock bottom. It was very hard to try and remain positive, particularly when fellow businesses were announcing they wouldn’t be able to reopen and had closed their businesses for good.”

a couple walk in the rain with mask on
Masks are the new normal when out shopping in public.

With worry that they two would have to shut shop, Claire and Natalie decided to move all 17,000 products to a new online store. The decision to sell online ended up being key to the saving of Our Handmade Collective but the pair know that the real saviours of their humble shop were their loyal customers: 

“People have been amazing, we have had lots of love on our social media, and we are lucky that we have a core of loyal customers who continue to support us through thick and thin. We now need people to feel safe and secure enough to want to return to the city centre, to increase the footfall and venture to see us in the Grand Arcade! The message of shopping small and shopping local was so important during the lockdowns, and it remains so now.”

The unsung heroes

Throughout the entire pandemic, there has been no doubt that the NHS has been the saving heroes. From the Doctors, Nurses, support staff and former workers that returned to be a helping hand, all were key to helping the UK get back to normal. But there is one essential group that feel their hard work was not acknowledged. 

Born and raised in the heart of Leeds, Erin Clark has always known that she wanted to help others. Now as a student nurse currently on placement, she’s one step closer to fulfilling her dream as she trains to become a children’s nurse.  

“I’ve always found medicine very interesting. I knew I wanted to be a surgeon originally, but that’s a very big job and takes a while and I knew that was never going to happen. So then I weighed up all my options and thought a nurse would be something that would fit me better.”

erin smiles at camera wearing a yellow jacket
Student nurse Erin hasn’t found it easy working in a pandemic but likes to remain positive no matter what.

Back in December, Erin started her required placement at Leeds General Infirmary during the height of the second wave. But due to her university campus being closed and only having online teaching, it meant that Erin had little to no training yet was expected to start her placement ready to be a supporting hand to staff. 

“I went into placement with only learning the absolute basic of CPR and the Heimlich manoeuvre. So everything else I was meant to know I didn’t. And I haven’t met any of my classmates, I’ve only met three people on my course. And there’s 50 of us. Some of them (hospital staff) are very understanding when you have to ask them questions, but then some are kind of like, Oh, we’ve already been over this and it’s just not very helpful, because we might have been over it before, but sometimes you don’t grasp it.”

Not only did Erin not feel fully prepared to enter the wards, but after her winter placement was cut short, she felt that there was a lack of support and communication from the Government towards student nurses. 

“The government were useless with helping us, and especially with student nurses because we were all over the place. Like, we went into placement, and then two weeks into placement they were like, you might be taken off again. We had no idea what was happening, it was all completely guessing game.”

Although Erin’s first year as a student nurse has not been what she expected, she still has hope that the next few years of her education will be different and she’ll soon fulfil her dream of becoming a fully qualified children’s nurse. 

a man walks towards the camera wearing a red hat and looking his phone
Erin was a key part to getting the UK back to normal and will be essential to the future of the medical world.

A stronger community 

The community centres of Leeds have been known to be called the beating heart of the city, a place for people to meet, support each other and learn. One of the best-known community centres in Leeds is Left Bank Leeds, found in central Burly in what was once a church. Prior to the pandemic, the centre was used more as an event hire space, typically for weddings, with limited public access. But when the lockdown was announced and uncertainty of when weddings could go ahead in full capacity again, the staff decided it was time for a re-think the use of the space with Director Sue Jennings at the helm of the re-brand:

“Although it was a tough time, it gave us a huge opportunity to reevaluate what Left Bank is and what it needs to be and to be relevant to our local community. So we took the plunge and decided it was really important that we opened Left Bank up every day. So we brought a secondhand coffee machine and started making sandwiches and found some old antique German bierkeller benches and just opened the doors with a real open door policy, just saying come in, share the space, meet your friends.” 

the inside of left bank showing the old church and the couple eating at a table
Since reopening Left Bank Leeds has seen locals venture into the space to try out their cafe and meet with friends.

Unlike Left Bank, not all community centres are lucky enough to be based in a vast open space with plenty of room for social distancing. Like next-door neighbour The Cardigan Centre, which in comparison to Left Bank could be described as quite small and with limited room for covid safety measures. But not all was lost for the centre when staff at Left Bank noticed the small room, they offered their own: 

“The Cardigan Centre next door we were able to let them use our space to deliver their workshops. So they were running creative workshops, sewing classes, and we were able to host those at Left Bank and also run some really important workshops, to help people with their English skills.”

Since re-opening, the space has been busy running events for the community of Leeds from hosting drawing classes to having rollerskating nights and so much more. Sue has also found that since making Left Bank a much more public space, they have started to receive a lot more support from the local community. 

“I suppose generally people know that we’re nonprofit and that we are trying really hard to put things on. So I think there is that sort of spirit of generosity there were people want to support you, they want to pay for tickets and come along and, and help in any way.”

With the re-brand seemingly being a triumph for the local community centre, there is hope that the future of Left Bank Leeds will be a success and help support a growing and stronger community. 

a pair walk past a bus selling fudge
As the city re-opens, the streets have been busy with eager shoppers wanting to support the shops and restaurants of Leeds.

The future looks bright

16 months ago, Leeds was most known for being the largest city in West Yorkshire, now after facing a pandemic and seeing some major loss in the city’s economical sector, Leeds has shown the nation it is a persistent and supportive hub. From the independent shops that felt more supported by the local public more than ever before, to the student nurses that helped battle the coronavirus and to the community centres that have grown and brought people back together. Leeds has shown to be a powerful city that is building its own bright future and is ready to face whatever the future brings.