"We will fight to reopen" vow Lancashire soft play centres devastated by lockdown restrictions

Owners of soft play centres across Lancashire say they will fight to reopen their doors, despite a warning that two thirds could close permanently by October.

Friday, 7th August 2020, 7:00 am
Ball pits like these are causing a headache for soft play centre owners

The Government has given no date for indoor play centres in England to reopen, with soft materials and the difficulty of getting small children to socially distance deeming the activity high-risk.

With stark concerns for the industry’s future raised by The British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions (BALPPA), thousands of people have signed petitions calling on the Government to step in with better guidance and better support.

”The industry is on it’s knees”, said Elaine Cooke, proprietor of the Kinder Hub in Cottam.

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An imaginative play area at The Kinder Hub in Cottam

”We’d only been open for a year in March and we’ve spent £200,000 setting it up, so we’ve been hit really hard.

“We still have to pay rent, pay our overheads and furlough will be coming to an end in October.

“We’ve heard that this issue won’t even be discussed in Parliament before October 1, so it gives us absolutely no room for manoeuver.

“We’ve already had to let two members of staff go, and we don’t want to lose any of the four we have left.”

Role play at the Kinder Hub

She added: “What we can’t understand is why places like Eureka and trampoline parks - which are all indoors, have been allowed to reopen - but we haven’t.

“We’re more than just soft play, we’re imaginative play, but because we’re indoors, we can’t open.

”We’re annoyed and frustrated. We’re really struggling and we don’t know what the future is.

“We’ve been thinking of just opening the cafe, or opening the outdoor area, removing the under-two’s soft play or even paying £300 a month to get a special spray that the Covid-19 virus won’t stick to, but nobody official is listening to us.”

She added: “It was fantastic to get the £10,000 grant at the start of lockdown, but that’s nothing really with all the overheads we have to pay. And we’re eating so fast through the £50,000 Bounce Back Loan, which has to be repaid next year somehow.”

Users of the Kinder Hub have offered to set up a fundraising page for the business, but Elaine said it “goes against the grain” when so many other businesses are also struggling.

She said: “There’s very much an outcry over it locally, people don’t want to see us close.

“We know there’s a market for us and a niche, and we will fight this as much as we can.”

She added: “This situation is also a huge shame for all the parents who haven’t been able to come here and let their children play. There’s a massive mental health strain on parents who haven’t been able to do any of this.”

The frustration is mirrored by Laura Brookes, owner of Jollies Barn in Mere Brow.

“We’ve not had any information yet, even though soft play centres in Scotland and Wales have been given dates to reopen”, she said.

“Trampoline places and outdoor play areas are allowed to open, but we’re in with nightclubs as one of the last places to be allowed.

“We’re not expecting them to say ‘open tomorrow’, but we do need more help. We’ve been left out to dry.

“They (the Government) haven’t engaged with us properly, so we can’t plan.”

In anticipation for an announcement, Jollies Barn has already removed its ball pits and has installed a new hygiene set-up.

“We’re pretty much ready”, said Laura.

“We’ve also used the time to do some redecorating. We’re trying to be positive, it’s important for us and our 11 staff.”

She added: “We’re also very encouraged by all the messages of support we’ve had from families who can’t wait to come back.”

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has set an indicative date of September 14 for reopening indoor playgrounds, gyms and swimming pools if the virus continues to be suppressed.

In Wales, indoor play areas, including soft play centres, can also reopen from 10 August.

Damian North, owner of Racals Party and Play Centre at the Capitol Trade Park in Walton-le-Dale, said the situation in England was “tragic”.

He said: “All we can do is wait. We understand that children can’t social distance when they’re playing, and we can’t enforce that.

“We have to go on what the Government’s team of scientific advisors are saying, but we are positive about things. We will reopen when we are allowed to, because we have a successful business and we have arrangements in place with our landlord, but we’re likely to be operating at a reduced capacity.

”We’ve also looked at heat investigation instruments for reception. but we don’t want to be spending a lot on new equipment when we don’t know what the situation is going to be in a few months, and whether this will be necessary.

“There is a lot of uncertainty and guesswork.”

In England, play centres with cafes and outdoor areas have been allowed to partially open, but the soft play element has remained off-limits.

Some facilities in Lancashire, such as Cheeky Monkeys in Factory Lane, Whittle-le-Woods, have decided to take the step and partially reopen.

Cheeky Monkeys is now open as a cafe and is accepting pre-booked Holiday Club sessions.

On July 16, more than a dozen mascots from indoor soft play centres around the country, alongside owners, staff and families, descended on Parliament Square to ask Boris Johnson to take action to help the industry. It came after 20 centres went out of business last month.

More than 30,000 people have also signed BALPPA’s petition for clearer guidance and help from the Government.

To sign the petition, click here

What does the trade body have to say?

Paul Kelly, chief executive of The British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions (BALPPA) has urged the Government to step in and help save operations from “disaster”.

“Whether it’s extra grants or an extension to the furlough scheme, something needs to be done to avoid an impending catastrophe in the leisure and tourism industry,” he said.

BALPPA is also “concerned and confused” by the differing standards required for different areas of the industry.

Mr Kelly said: “Indoor bowling centres, indoor play areas and other indoor-based leisure operations are ready and eager to get back to work safely with track and tracing of guests, additional hygiene facilities, social distancing and capacity control.

“A growing number of our members are already reporting job losses and, once these businesses close, it will be extremely difficult for them to be able to re-open.

“These closures don’t just affect the businesses themselves, but their suppliers, neighbouring operators and, of course, the many thousands of young families who visit them each week.”

He added that concerns weren’t just for jobs and businesses.

He said: “Free play and physical activity are incredibly important in the development of young children and to not support businesses that provide something that has a proven positive effect on wellbeing seems incredibly short-sighted.”

What are the new rules of play in England?

In England, outdoor playgrounds have been allowed reopen since July 4, along with restaurants, pubs, museums, hotels, and campsites.

However, the UK government website clarifies that outdoor areas are far less likely to help the spread of the virus than indoor spaces.

“Scientific advice suggests that the virus can survive for up to several days on some hard surfaces, particularly when indoors. These risks are reduced when outdoors, where surfaces may be subject to UV light and/or rain,” guidance said.