With re-opening a possibility for many shops in the next few weeks after more than two months of closure, I thought it might be useful to share our experiences of being open throughout the lockdown, and my personal thoughts on the issues. As many of you know, in addition to running Bittern Books I operate the village shop and Post Office in Coltishall. We have been open, pretty much as usual, throughout the crisis and we’ve learnt a good deal about behaviour and concerns, both of staff and customers.
Notwithstanding government guidelines, which from my reading are very generalised and not all that helpful, I believe there are two clear areas that need to be considered: staff safety and customer safety. But first let’s give some consideration to the more general area of risk and try to put it into perspective. From the latest ONS figures up to the 17th May, they estimated 61,000 new cases per week – i.e. approximately 1 in 1000 of the population is likely to be infectious for a few days each week before developing symptoms. My guess is that in Norfolk and Suffolk, those figures are much lower, but this means that if you get 100 customers in your shop every day, you will at worst get 1 customer every 10 days who is infectious. To pass that infection on, the customer would have to breath or cough directly at you, or pass it on by hand touching something that you subsequently pick up, and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Washing or sanitising your hands at some point will negate that. So at the moment the probability of the virus being passed on in your shop, even with minimal precautions, is very small. Of course if the number of cases increases, the risk could increase rapidly, so we do need to be ready.
For me, staff safety is the most important thing. Working in a shop we are potentially exposed to every customer that walks through the door, and of course to other staff members. Our experience is that maintaining a distance between staff in a small shop is virtually impossible, but if there are only a small number of people working in the shop this represents a very low risk – we are not significantly increasing the number of contacts by seeing the same two or three colleagues every day. Protection from customers is more important but not always easy to achieve. Whilst behind the counter we are somewhat distanced, people do tend to lean towards you when talking or listening and when making payment. Early on we installed acrylic sheet screens around the counter. These cost just a few hundred pounds already cut to my measurements and I was able to install them myself over a weekend, using heavy duty Velcro tape on the counter to avoid damage.
These certainly help provide a physical barrier and give us a feeling of more security when serving. It is debatable whether wearing gloves is of much benefit. The plus side is it can make you think twice about touching your face, and reduces the amount of hand washing or sanitising which can be very bad for the skin – several of us had cracks in our hands for a while and I have put a dispenser of moisturising cream (E45) in the staff room. You should of course still wash or sanitise the outside of the gloves regularly to avoid passing on any infection. Masks are impractical if you want to have a conversation with customers and not particularly helpful unless everyone wears them. Handling cash is a risk factor, particularly small coins (which is probably less of an issue in a bookshop) so encouraging or insisting on card payment is a good idea.
Moving around the shop or stocking up shelves it is more difficult to maintain distance from customers. If I need to pass someone in the shop I always try to turn my back to them, but it’s not easy. Best to try to limit stocking up to when the shop is closed or quiet.
Protection for customers is much harder to achieve, particularly if they don’t take precautions themselves. At the start of the crisis customers were generally well behaved and maintaining their distance, but over the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed much less caution being taken and I’ve had to remind several people about keeping a space when queuing or talking to staff. Signage is important and a limit on the number of people in the shop is effective and helps avoid crowding around the counter area.
A problem for bookshops is whether to allow customers to handle the books, although arguably there’s not much point in being open if they can’t. Should you put the books in quarantine after they’ve been touched? Given the numbers mentioned above, the risk of passing on the virus by touching a book is low, and can be further reduced by asking customers to sanitise their hands (even if wearing gloves) before and after handling the books.
On the whole there is little to fear in reopening and a lot to gain. Will customers come back? Absolutely – most can’t wait to start shopping again and seem to have few concerns. I hope to start hearing from you all again soon: we have plenty of stock and are ready to start shipping anything you need. In the meantime please call or email if there’s anything in this post that I can help you with.
Good luck, Steve Haines.