It’s a bank holiday weekend in May, and it’s scorching. It’s the stuff of dreams for small towns like this.
And it comes off the back of a sun-kissed Easter. The weather gods have shone on New Quay this year.
It makes being denied a bumper start to the holiday season so much more cruel. But then this virus is nothing but cruel.
For this town, this haven of seaside tranquillity and bustling activity, it’s like something they’ve never seen before.
New Quay, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Wales, woke up this morning, but it is still asleep.
Days, weeks and months have passed, and the reality is hard to take. Shops, restaurants, pubs, caravan parks, boat trips, ice cream parlours – you name it, it’s closed. It’s a ghost town, and yet, in the whole of Ceredigion, there have been less than 40 confirmed cases of coronavirus.
Any number is too many, but, in relative terms, Ceredigion has dodged the storm. But what if the storm hasn’t passed? What if it just hasn’t arrived yet?
There’s a palpable sense in New Quay that they want their town back, but not at any cost.
Jonathan Evans runs Dolphin Spotting Boat Trips on the harbour with his father, Winston. Their business has been decimated. They have not sold a ticket. They need the tourism industry to open again, but they know that it can’t. Not their particular section of it, anyway.
After all, have you ever tried social distancing on a boat full of holidaymakers?
“What we’re dealing with right now is the decision about whether tourism will reopen or not,” said Mr Evans, who regards himself as lucky that he was able to furlough staff, compared to some seasonal businesses who could not.
“There seems to be a political interest in Westminster at the moment to start easing lockdown for certain businesses and certain sectors, but we need to know if tourism is going to be included in that.
“The crux of it is – if we don’t get our boats back in the water by September then the whole year is written off. We are just waiting for what’s next.”
It’s a complicated situation in New Quay. People want to be allowed to trade again, but they don’t want loved ones, friends, or neighbours to get sick.
There is a strange conflict between wanting lockdown lifted (whenever that is) and wanting it to remain in place, or, more pertinently, lifted with the caveat of support.
The population is 1,200. But take into account the Haven run Quay West holiday park which has around 600 caravans.
Then all the other campsites, the terraces full of holiday lets, the B&B’s, and the second home owners, of which there are many.
In the summer the population doesn’t grow. It explodes. By thousands.
“Let me give you an example,” said Mr Evans. “What if we were allowed to trade again in, say, August, because Westminster wants us to. But does Westminster understand somewhere like Ceredigion? They need to understand what could happen.
“It would be great to have people back on the boat, but from our point of view, even if we are really careful with all sorts of safety measures, working at 20% capacity with everyone wearing masks, what about the town as a whole?
“We will effectively be inviting a lot of people to New Quay, a town which is not very big. What we’re hoping for is to be told categorically whether we can open or whether we can’t. It can’t be ambiguous.”
While the UK Government has taken the lead on lockdown measures, the Welsh Government does have devolved powers to manage its own restrictions. First Minister Mark Drakeford announced “modest adjustments” to the Welsh lockdown on Friday, changes which do not affect the tourism trade.
The complex picture being painted by Mr Evans comes down to this: the tourism industry has many different elements, and it may be feasible for some businesses to trade again; for others, it may remain impossible.
Businesses like his could be (at some point this summer) told to reopen – bringing an end to the furlough scheme – but in doing so those businesses are opening themselves up to huge risks. Financial ones and, more importantly, ones that could damage the town, the county, the whole of West Wales.
“If the Government open up tourism again and we are allowed to run our trips, then people need to realise that thousands of people will come to Ceredigion, and social distancing cannot be done within the tourism industry. Businesses in this sector have different requirements. How can you social distance when the whole point of the business is for people to be on a boat together in one place?
“If we do start running again we will be partly responsible for getting loads of people to New Quay, and we could see a massive spike in coronavirus cases – I’ve heard the argument for ‘introducing’ the virus to Ceredigion in a measured fashion because we need to build up some immunity, because it’s going to come at some point.
“But if we can’t reopen we need the grants to continue and the furlough scheme to continue.
“The worst case scenario for us is if the tourism industry is opened up again but there is no support given to the people who run it; if it’s just assumed that we are the same as other businesses; if there’s no special consideration given to the fact that we cannot operate and socially isolate at the same time.
“Ceredigion has dealt with the crisis well and we have been lucky with the numbers we have seen, but we don’t know how this part of the world would cope with a surge in cases.”
Another businessman who is feeling the pinch is Dylan Davies. He owns The Captain’s Rendezvous, a local chippy. He says the town is paralysed in a ‘catch-22’ dilemma.
“I closed for six weeks but we reopened last Saturday because we had to,” he explained. “We’ve had a grant from the council but we’ve had no support from elsewhere, and to be honest with you it’s been abysmal.
“It’s very quiet. I normally have 15 people working here but at the moment it’s just me, my wife, my son and one other person that comes in at night to clean. If the lockdown is lifted then our business will of course pick up. But, what will that bring with it?
“It’s a catch-22 scenario. People have been very wise to stay away from New Quay due to what’s going on but at the same time it’s very frustrating because we rely on people coming here, on people coming into the shop.
“I’m hoping that the local trade will see us through until we get back to normal. So far, from what I’ve seen, they’re afraid to come back.”
So, when will people come back? If lockdown is eased, and people are allowed to travel to certain areas, including beaches and seaside towns, will the light at the end of the tunnel shine straight away?
“It’s not going to get back to normal this year, no way,” said Mr Davies.
“We are going to go straight from one winter to another. It’s very worrying.”
While, for most, the timing of the lockdown has been a blessing – sunny weather, long nights, and the opportunity to at least breathe some fresh air creating a far more palatable situation than if it were later in year – for the people of New Quay who rely on the trade of summer tourists, the situation could not be much worse.
This is when they make their money. Their summer time is when they pay for their winter time. If, god forbid, the crisis eases as we approach the autumn, it will be too late for New Quay. For this year, at least.
One pub landlord in the town is also engaged in a mental conflict. He wants to open, he misses his locals, but he knows that any easing of restrictions could pave the way for more economic pain further down the line.
“I’ve been the landlord here for 19 months and I’ve lived in New Quay for 20 years,” said Colin Sharp, who runs the Sea Horse Inn and also owns shops in Aberaeron and Aberystwyth.
“Altogether I’ve worked in retail for 54 years and I’ve never experienced anything like this. I’ve had to furlough 13 staff across the board, and we’re thankful for that – the Government has been really good with that scheme.
“But there’s talk that it might drop from 80% of wages to 60%, and then it’s a real worry. These people have mortgages, they have kids.
“What I miss the most is the people. Every morning we had a number of elderly people coming in to play drafts, dominoes and chess, and it was a pleasure to open up the pub for them. One of my regulars is 82, and he would sit in the pub all day – not drinking, just having a cup of tea and some toast.
“I miss that. The only thing that’s kept me going is walks with another couple of locals. We social distance of course but we can walk down on the beach. That gives me something to look forward to every day.”
There is constant talk and rumour down here as to when lockdown will be lifted. Everyone will be glued to Boris Johnson’s address on Sunday evening, but it’s likely that the day, week or month when pubs will be able to reopen will remain shrouded in mystery. If it is similar to the message delivered by Mark Drakeford, things will stay the same.
“I would open tomorrow if I could,” said Mr Sharp. “I’m skint, and I’ve still got bills to pay.
“Look at the Easter weekend we had – the weather was glorious, and we’ve missed all of that. We rely on the summer. Everyone here relies on the summer, apart from 10 days or so over Christmas.
“But of course we worry about social distancing and about coronavirus; we’ve been worried since the start. We also have to worry about what could happen in the future – we don’t want to reopen too soon only to be closed again later in the year.”
You can tell in Mr Sharp’s voice that, like everyone in this crisis, he knows what he wants to happen but he doesn’t know if it can.
What we really want – the eradication of coronavirus – isn’t possible, not yet, so there is an impossible choice laid before us: if businesses reopen it could spell catastrophe for Ceredigion; if businesses don’t reopen it could spell catastrophe for Ceredigion, because they will cease to exist.
Mr Sharp retains hope, but not much: “There’s some talk that pubs might be open by August. If that’s the case then we will have a chance. If not we’ll have to go to the bank to borrow money, and I don’t want to do that.”
For one man, seeing his beloved New Quay reduced to its current state is nothing short of tragic.
“It’s a ghost town, it’s like a morgue with lights,” said Dan Potter, county councillor for the area, town councillor, former town mayor and RNLI volunteer.
“At this time of year, with this sunshine, it would be packed, so it’s difficult to see it like this.
“The community here has really worked hard to safeguard itself, and the people here have done everything they can to help. We’ve had a few people who do think that they are better than the law, but in the main people have stayed away.
“A lot of people are concerned that if lockdown is lifted, will people flock to the town? We have everything in place if we do have a big spike, but prevention is better than cure. However, it’s true that we depend on tourism; without tourism this town is nothing. If businesses cannot afford to pay their rent then they will have to close. That’s the last thing we want to see.”
Can New Quay survive this? Can a town reliant on summer survive without one?
“Next summer I do see things returning to normal, providing there is a vaccine in place,” Mr Potter said. “But until then it will be really difficult.
“If I’m honest, I see the social distancing side of things continuing for years.
“It’s not that we don’t want tourists to come down here; we want them to come here more than ever because the town relies on people coming here, but we have to safeguard the locals. By next summer, hopefully, it will be safe for people to return.”
On the outskirts of the town sits Pencnwc Holiday Park. Last year it celebrated 50 years as a family business, one that has thrived since the late 1960s. Until now.
Tomas Davies and his brother Daniel are the third generation of their family to run Pencnwc, and like everybody else, they had no idea what was to come when they planned ahead for this summer.
“We bought 25 new caravans for hire, ready for this year – they haven’t even been used,” said Mr Davies.
“We had bookings throughout the season but we’ve just had to cancel. At the moment we’ve cancelled everything up until mid-June but things are changing all the time.”
Mr Davies said there had been talk within the caravan park trade that holiday sites such as Pencnwc might be able to reopen in stages. The first stage would see caravan owners be permitted to return, the second would see holidaymakers rent caravans while social distancing and isolating within them, and the third stage would see park facilities reopen.
If and when any of these stages can be implemented is anyone’s guess.
Candidly, he added: “The biggest danger for us is that we have to remain shut for the whole summer and then we are free to open at the end of it, by which time it will be too late for us to make any real money.
“We might have a situation where we face three winters in a row in terms of our incomings: last winter, what we’re living through right now, and the winter that is to come.
“We are obviously going to lose money but we need support, and every business is hoping that there will be some flexibility with regards to the furlough scheme. In an ideal world it would be nice to have support until March 2021.”
Amidst the gloom, there is hope for Mr Davies. That hope stems from the fact that people across Wales and the whole of the UK will be in need of a holiday like never before when the severity of this situation subsides, and New Quay, an attractive destination at the best of times, might then become even more seductive to those desperate for a break in the sun.
“People will always want a holiday, but the airlines are saying it could be years until they get back to normal, so from our point of view, we might be where they come to.
“Potentially, you can go on holiday within the UK and maintain social distancing. You can’t do that on a plane.”
One man who has helped Mr Davies through these tumultuous times is Ceredigion MP Ben Lake, who has been in regular dialogue with businesses in New Quay as he appreciates the gravity of the situation facing one of his constituency’s jewels.
He said it feels “eerily strange” to see New Quay like this, but, at the same time, it is a sight which fills him with hope for the future.
“It is a source of considerable pride that people across the county have observed the social distancing measures and adhered to the lockdown restrictions so well,” said Mr Lake.
“The fact that New Quay is still quiet is testament to the commitment of local residents and businesses to keep the community safe. Their desire to cooperate for the benefit of the community’s well-being is heartening.”
Mr Lake believes that, due to the different rates of infection, increased testing will be key in order to better ascertain the ‘R value’ – the average number of people that one infected person can expect to pass coronavirus on to – of different areas of Wales. For now, he believes that “we must adopt a cautious approach”.
“It is a very challenging time for our towns,” he said.
“It is already accepted that nobody should be punished for doing the right thing and for protecting the wellbeing of the community, and support packages should be in place for the duration of restrictions and open to all businesses.
“However, for many businesses in New Quay and in the tourism and hospitality sector especially, business may not return to anywhere approaching normality until next year, and so the Government should also explore ways of supporting them to survive until such a time that they can re-open safely again.”
Despite the fact that Covid-19 has thus far failed to penetrate the town of New Quay, it is clear that its people are already exhausted by it.
For now, the usual mix of summer joy and sea air in this beautiful seaside town has been replaced by an atmosphere laced with uncertainty and dread about what is to come, both in terms of health and economics.
It may be asleep at the moment, and that slumber may last for a long time yet, but the people who live and work here are determined to bring New Quay back, whenever that may be.