What happens when a bloke hops into the lift with you?: post-lockdown in a Manchester hotel
Well this feels strange, doesn’t it? Leaving the house. With plans. Being able to sleep in a hotel room and sink a pint on Saturday night. But only, in my case, after sitting masked on an eerily empty tram as it trundles past the Nightingale Hospital North West, a reminder of how precarious England’s rush into the new normal might be.
If travelling into Manchester city centre from its suburbs feels unreal, imagine the leap of faith it would require to book a city break right now. Yet, at the 166-room Native aparthotel, 60 rooms sold late last week to … someone. Its public ground floor – previously bar, restaurant, cinema and Cultureplex arts space, now Ducie Street Warehouse – is reasonably busy with a glammed-up and self-consciously hip Northern Quarter crowd. None older than 32. Does the world now belong to health-confident 20-somethings? Possibly.
Native is currently operating on a limited basis. In-house gym Blok is Joe Wicks-ing classes to rooms, the arts programme is on hold, and the restaurant will return in risk-assessed stages. At opening, two chefs had been working in the huge open kitchen on a limited menu for Counter, a bar and grocery store where guests can buy (creditably tasty, well-executed) food and drink with minimal staff interaction and very limited table service. If you prefer real seclusion, you can pick up meals to reheat in your room; each has a high-spec kitchen.
The Covid-19 changes made in the lounge – a vast, handsome space designed at that wood-panelled point where Mad Men meets Scandi minimalism – have been subtly executed. It does not set alarm bells ringing. The plastic screens at reception are already familiar and because staff largely stay behind those screens or suitably distant (no luggage storage; contactless payments and key drop; no room clean during stays), they are not wearing PPE. (Though full PPE is available should staff have to enter a guest’s room.)
The staff – who are happy to talk Covid-19, no one is pretending it isn’t happening – will not clear tables in the lounge until a party leaves and some tables (divided by more plastic screens), chairs and even urinals are out of use to enhance social distancing. But none of this feels problematic. Now physical menus are out, the QR code you use works seamlessly. Similarly, around a stunning five-floor atrium that celebrates this building’s rivets-and-girders industrial past, the bedrooms each have a “clean seal” on the door on arrival, but a lot of the Covid-19 detail (two-stage deep clean of everything; leaving rooms 72 hours between guests; the long overdue removal of throws and cushions), may happily pass you by.
Yet there are moments of apprehension. Every door handle or lift button is now a possible site of infection, which throws up a novel complaint. Native’s widely available hand sanitiser is weirdly sticky and evaporates too slowly. A potentially alarming bottle of tomato sauce appears on the table at breakfast. Isn’t it all sachets now? Then there are the other guests. Do you kick off when a bloke hops into the lift with you, despite the one-party-per-lift rule? Or try not to breathe for four floors?
Such anxieties fall away after two pints (Magic Rock’s Inhaler), which may be the problem with hospitality reopening. Listening to vintage disco and Grace Jones in the lounge, it feels like Saturday night. For visitors, however, the wider Northern Quarter may not be so welcoming.
In this largely pedestrianised area, bars now spill confusingly out on to streets and squares. As a newcomer, scoping them out would be difficult as staff in PPE-visors shuttle about amid bewildering queues and signs on one-way systems, take-out hatches, ordering apps and contacts registration. Most of my haunts – Peer Hat, Soup Kitchen, Smithfield, Marble Arch – have sat out the reopening. Port Street Beer House was only taking pre-booked groups. Clubs and music venues remain closed. On a city break, navigating all this will take a new level of organisation.
With its Conran furniture and Manhattan loft looks, Native still feels like a luxurious treat. But will Manchester be the draw it was? Will any city? It is impossible to know.
• Accommodation was provided by Native at Ducie Street Warehouse, 51 Ducie Street, Manchester. Doubles from £88, breakfast currently £2-£5, nativeplaces.com