19:10pm. After my fourth ‘casual’ walk past the pub entrance, I gain the courage to enter. I am faced with what looks like a barricade dotted with multiple signs reminding me about social distancing, and a small, well-guarded gap by a podium, where a face-masked member of staff sombrely takes my details and begrudgingly allows me to cross the threshold. Success! I have entered the fortress.
Our ‘Independence Day’ on 4th July (did we not already use this overly-pithy title for Brexit?) was met with joy from most in England, while Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland opted to follow a more tentative path towards reopening. Immediately by the morning of the 5th July, newspaper front covers were splashed with images of victorious, hearty Englishmen, downing pints on roads and lounging in the sun with friends. Unfortunately, however, it really does remain to be seen what extent of this ‘victory’ over COVID-19 is genuine, compared to the extent to which we have simply stretched the public’s patience too thin, or squeezed our economy too hard. Already, we have seen hints that this easing is not quite as victorious as it seems, with Leicester being placed into an elongated localised lockdown just a few days before the 4th July, and now the introduction of compulsory face coverings in shops from Friday 24th July, despite 20 days of mask-free shopping being allowed before this point. Although this really does seem to be a touch-and-go state of affairs, with these unprecedented conditions leaving us all fairly unsure of the best course of action (whether personally or in terms of government policy), it cannot be denied that the general atmosphere post-lockdown is buoyed, with the ongoing threat of coronavirus appearing to be almost forgotten in many public spaces.
Personally, the end of lockdown invoked a mixed reaction from me. I cannot begin to imagine how many times over the past few months I have bemoaned the lack of public spaces open to us; I missed my friends, I missed the freedom to walk around and socialise and meander into shops, and I really really missed Caffè Nero. Now, as I write this in an empty Caffè Nero, drinking a lukewarm flat white out of a takeaway cup, I can’t help but feel that the nostalgia is better than the reality.
The major thing which has struck me is the sheer awkwardness of reopening. I had not realised quite how much of an art socialising is, and now that I’m out of practice after months of forced hermit-hood, I have the social know-how of a nerd in a 90s teen romcom. I have ghosted many friends and don’t really know how to justify this on reunion (not that we have much to catch each other up on). I am tired of the ‘nice to be open again’ chat which has replaced ‘not bad weather today, eh?’. I volunteer in a tiny charity shop once a week, and watching people navigate the one-way system floor arrows with their tartan shopping trolleys and prams is like some warped form of Mario Kart which developers rightly ditched one week into the project. I think this encapsulates the essence of reopening; nothing is quite the same, everything is a bit more difficult than it was, and nobody really knows what to do.
Perhaps we have to some extent evolved out of our dependence on public establishments and pastimes like shopping and eating out. In many cases lockdown has taught us how to enjoy a slower-paced lifestyle, maybe by spending more time alone, or more time in nature. I think we’ve also learnt to make a distinction between different types of socialising, with the closure of pubs reminding us that our friends are actually pretty interesting in their own right (shocking), and that maybe just interacting with them by going on a walk or sitting by a lake is more important than sourcing some form of diversion with them.
I suppose, at this point, that it is down to the individual citizen to do their bit to combat the spread of the disease when in public, by maintaining social distancing, wearing face coverings, limiting physical contact and frequently washing/sanitising hands. In reality, I think that one only has to have been in a pub once to know that this is not going to be the case. Never mind that none of these ‘compulsory’ actions can be policed or enforced; the very nature of going to pubs, restaurants, or bars, is to interact with those around you, and of course we can hardly eat or drink with a face mask on. In fairness, this is very sticky situation for our politicians; a second wave is, as scientists have said for months, inevitable, and to keep the economy in stasis until December and beyond, all while preparing for a fresh influx of cases, would put unfathomable strain on our already butchered financial state. This is clearly the chosen focus at this stage of the pandemic, as the Prime Minister has stated his reluctance to impose a second lockdown for this future wave, likening it to a ‘nuclear deterrent’ that he ‘certainly [doesn’t] want to use’.
The general message of reopening seems to be to have fun, but not too much fun; spend lots of money, but preferably by card; if the second wave is bad, it’s your own fault. Really, this reopening is all very bittersweet. We have all been lusting after freedom from lockdown for months, but with this freedom being so stilted and doctored, alongside our grim march towards a second wave, it is undoubtedly freedom at one’s own risk.