In the middle of an unprecedented week, the Gazette’s Matt Smart caught up with businesses in Barnstaple to see how coronavirus was having an impact on trade.

The effects of the Prime Minister’s advice to stop non-essential contact with others and avoid social venues was clear to see in Barnstaple town centre a couple of days later.

The town’s usually bustling brunch and lunchtime trade was far more pedestrian on Wednesday (March 18), a couple of days after Boris Johnson set out his measures to stop the spread of coronavirus.

One of the town’s usual hotspots is Block, which has been trading in Butcher’s Row since 2017.

Owners Andy and Tran Stephenson reacted to the announcement on March 16 by reducing their capacity to give people more space, as well as introducing a pre-order system and card-only transactions.

Andy said trade had ‘dropped off a cliff’ since the response intensified.

“We usually have a rush at 11.25 at brunch, because they know we stop serving breakfast at 11.30, and we just haven’t had that,” he said.

Block's Andy Stephenson said trade had 'dropped off a cliff' after the PM's announcement on March 16.Block's Andy Stephenson said trade had 'dropped off a cliff' after the PM's announcement on March 16.

“We’ve had to scale back and we’re trying to work out what to do, but it is not like we can persuade people to come out.

“Everyone is trying things such as take-away, but it’s hard to do that for just for coffee and some cake.

“We’ve taken out chairs and tables, which gives people some reassurance, but there aren’t many people around.”

In Mermaid Walk, the Bull and Bear would usually be drawing in groups watching live sports such as the Six Nations, the Premier League and the Champions League.

With all those competitions on hold, Bull and Bear’s Ben Corney said the pub had to rely on other things.

Ben said: “The final day of the Six Nations is usually one of our busiest days of the year, and that being cancelled was certainly a downturn on our trade, and having no football to show has a knock-on effect.

The Bull and Bear's Ben Corney.The Bull and Bear's Ben Corney.

“We have a good food trade here, so we’re changing up our game and making everyone aware we are not just a sports bar.”

Last year the pub started a delivery service with Uber Eats and it is hoped its popularity will continue.

While Ben said there was a ‘wait and see’ approach at the moment, he emphasised plenty of businesses are still open as normal.

He added: “People come to the pub to escape everyday life. We are still here with a pint, friendly faces and something to eat.”

Businesses are having to adapt and react to what is being thrown at them. In the food and drink sector, many are starting to offer takeaway and delivery services, and are thinking about changes they can make to stop the virus spreading.

In The Cove Boutique in Tuly Street, owner Chay West has shown that these measures can be as simple as keeping a door open, getting rid of cash transactions and keeping surface cleaner and anti-bacterial gel in sight.

The Cove Boutique owner Chay West.The Cove Boutique owner Chay West.

Chay said the virus has prompted him to start expanding his clothes shop’s online presence, and was able to boost sales with a strongly-worded discount code referencing coronavirus.

“For me, it’s about learning to adapt and evolve the business,” said Chay.

“I’m not an every-day store for people but it has a knock on effect if people stop visiting. It’s worrying, but I hope people still want to look good when they are staying at home.

“These are worrying times, but if we can stick together as a community and help each other out, that will be key to us beating this and coming back stronger.

“Every town has its chains, but you won’t find places like these anywhere else and we don’t want to lose that.”

While there has certainly been a downturn in trade along many parts of the town centre, businesses like Robert Withecombe Butchers have been boosted as people look to stock up on food.

Steve Harris said the shop had been ‘like Christmas’ in terms of trade, as people sought out their food away from the supermarkets.

“It’s taken something like this for people to realise they can come to their local butcher,” he said.

And across the road at salon Forty Nine and Fifth, owner Beth Miller said business was steady, but people were being ‘scared off by the news’.

“It all depends on what people see on the news. It’s been normal today after a quiet day on Tuesday (March 17),” she said.

“We are open as normal and we just want people to keep coming in. We’re taking things day by day and we will see what happens. We’re getting bookings as well as cancellations.”

Barnstaple Town Centre Management said it is working closely with North Devon Council to ensure it has the best information available to businesses regarding additional support.

It has contacted more than 50 businesses with the latest advice and said it is gathering data on the impact on the town centre to share with policy-makers.