A week of eased restrictions: ‘It’s reopening way too fast’

Irish people are surprised ‘unlocking’ happened so fast – too fast for many of us

Owner Dannielle Downes at the Foxy Chopper hair salon in Waterford city: “The world is slightly different. It’s a new era.” Photograph: Patrick Browne

Owner Dannielle Downes at the Foxy Chopper hair salon in Waterford city: “The world is slightly different. It’s a new era.” Photograph: Patrick Browne

 

Dannielle Downes has thought of almost everything ahead of the reopening of Foxy Chopper hair salon on Gladstone Street in Waterford. A dedicated hand-sanitising station inside the door. Masks for clients and visors for staff. Glass partitions between clients. Contact-tracing forms. Even the bag to seal away biros used by clients, which will be taken away and sanitised.

Just after 10am, she remembers one last thing. “That feels great,” she says, going outside to peel the huge, red “Back Soon” sticker off the window. “I’m emotional. I was emotional through lockdown. The world is slightly different. It’s a new era.”

The salon’s normal capacity is 11, but for now, only six people are here at a time. Appointments are fully booked up for the next five weeks. The phones have been ringing off the hook.

“Funny enough, it’s men more than women,” who were trying to get appointments during the closure, says Downes. There were a few offers of bribes, one half-joking, whole-in-earnest one for €100. But Downes was determined to follow the guidelines and not reopen until last Monday.

As the customers arrive, they already know what to do – they got their instructions by email. Unlike other salons, she made the decision not to impose any extra charges, other than a €6 PPE charge. The customers are careful to stay apart, but seem at ease. “It’s the strangest of times for everyone,” says Ita Richards, the first customer of the day, who hasn’t been here since February. She’s in for “roots, highlights, cut, everything”.

On the streets of Waterford on Monday, it’s not so much a rush back to any kind of normal, as a slow, hesitant step into a familiar unknown. People are keeping their distance in the queues outside shops and the newly-reopened cafes. But only about one in 10 is wearing a mask.

Lisa Fitzgerald, owner of Carter’s Chocolate Cafe in Waterford city. Photograph: Patrick Browne
Lisa Fitzgerald, owner of Carter’s Chocolate Cafe in Waterford city. Photograph: Patrick Browne

Lisa Fitzgerald is overseeing the cleaning of tables on the wide, pedestrianised street outside Carter’s Chocolate Cafe. Two women with shopping bags approach and ask if the cafe is open. “We’re all ready, all open. Inside and all.”

“And do we have to be gone by a certain time?” they ask. Fitzgerald has been getting a lot of those kind of questions over the last few days. “Do we have to ring and book? Do we have to spend a certain amount of money? No, we’re not a pub.”

Around the corner, Fintan Stanley, who runs a wholesale coffee supply business and trade cafe and barista training school, is relieved to have the tables back inside, and on the square outside. He won’t reopen the school until September at the earliest. But the cafe has been busy and compliance is good.

“It’s not like at the start of lockdown, where they were all on top of each other. People are coming in now, keeping their distance, and they’re sanitising the table themselves, even when we’ve already done it. That’s good. The onus shouldn’t all the be on the business owner. There has to be an element of personal responsibility too.”

Those scenes were being replicated all around the country this week. Spaces were reimagined. Business models redrawn. Staff retained. Entire premises renovated. Ireland is open for business again. Now there’s a sense that it’s over to us, and how the public navigates the reopening.

Prof Sam McConkey hates the phrase “reopening”, along with “locking, lockdown, unlocking. A lock is a binary outcome. It’s either locked or unlocked. As people are gradually realising, this is not a binary problem. It’s a complex problem with multiple different nuances to it.”

He prefers to think of what happened in Ireland this week as the relaxing of restrictions. “We all, for all of our welfare, need to keep the economy going.”

Our health is inextricably linked to our material wealth, he says, so we need business to restart. “The aim is to try and do that without another outbreak of Covid-19.”

He is concerned that people take it slowly, and don’t now rush out “to go to the party of 500 people”. Instead, we should be merging our bubbles so that “two, three or five households that now become one, and stick within that larger bubble.”

Wearing masks, staying local and “keeping out people from other countries – keeping people in 14-day quarantine” are the other big messages he’d like to get across.

“And if you get sick with a fever or chills or headache, you should be calling your GP quickly, getting tested the same day, getting a result the same day.”

Prof Luke O’Neill has been encouraged by an increase in face mask wearing and good social distancing this week – he estimates between 60 and 65 per cent of people were wearing a mask on the Dart one morning this week. He feels we’re getting close to the tipping point where mask-wearing will become the norm.

But, he warns, “we’ve got to get ready. There will be spikes. So the question is: what’s going to happen next during those spikes? That’s all about testing and tracing. As long as that is good, we should be okay.”

McConkey has been dismayed this week by talk of foreign holidays. “That whole ease of going just to see places and do things is going to disappear, unless maybe in five or 10 years we get a vaccine,” he warns.

In the meantime, we all need to find some way to live safely alongside the virus – and that means letting children have a childhood. “The main challenge now is to get our creches back going again, our summer camps, primary schools, secondary schools and colleges. The whole education sector sort of stopped and just said, Oh, we’ll deal with September, and nobody’s really doing anything.”

*****

Summer camp season has arrived for the children in Dunmore East. Socially-distant sailing courses have been running out of Waterford Harbour Sailing Club for the past two weeks, and over at the Dunmore Adventure Centre, the Wibit Wipeout Aqua Park – a floating playground – launched on Monday.

The mood among the young campers waiting to try it out on day one is anything but subdued. “The children are just dying to get out and do something physical,” says Aileen Gilchrist, who’s here with her son, Conor Mc Gurk, three friends, and their three children.

Conor McGuirke, Zach and Ella Briody and Emily Kavanagh at Dunmore Adventure Centre in Dunmore East, Co Waterford. Photograph: Patrick Browne
Conor McGuirke, Zach and Ella Briody and Emily Kavanagh at Dunmore Adventure Centre in Dunmore East, Co Waterford. Photograph: Patrick Browne

They took advantage of the lifting of nationwide travel restrictions and travelled down from Dublin on Monday and are spending a week-long staycation in a holiday home in the village. “They’re raring to go now, so they are.”

Each child has their temperature checked at the door of the adventure centre. “The parents have to fill a Covid form. Then they go and get a wetsuit, which is sanitised after every child.

Lockdown “was soul-destroying”, says owner Karen Harris. “We lost half our season. We’re hoping to just break even this year. But we’re just delighted to get back out. We’re so lucky that we’re outdoors because the best place you can be is in the seawater and open air.”

As the children slide along the Wibit for the camera, you could almost forget anything else was going on in the world.

That’s not the case on Tuesday in the Dundrum Town Centre. There are reminders everywhere to keep your distance, wear a mask, follow the suggested flow of pedestrian traffic through the centre. It seems relatively quiet – six retail stores are still shut, and some food outlets have not yet reopened.

Monday was extremely busy, according to one staff member, who doesn’t want to be named, but “today is middling”. That means between 20,000 and 25,000 people will pass through over the course of the day, and about 2,000 are here now. Before the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual to have 5,000 people in the centre at one time.

But by far the most obvious reminder are the masks. At least half of the shoppers have a mask on. On the top floor, near Tesco, where the shoppers are typically older, up to 80 per cent of people are wearing a mask. The woman on the door at Next says it’s 80 per cent there too.

In Louis Copeland, owner Copeland attributes the surge in mask-wearing to the effect of the RTÉ Prime Time programme filmed inside St James’s on Monday. “It really drove it home.”

Business was brisk for the first few days after shops reopened, and then it dropped away. “But since the cafes and restaurants are reopening, it’s picking up again. We’ll probably be down 50 per cent on last year. It’s going to take time for people to get comfortable” especially in shopping centres.

Leslie Morrissey is out with two younger women, picking up a few bits for her sister, who’s in hospital. They’re all wearing masks. “Coming in here today, we were like, Oh God.”

Are you quite nervous? They all say yes. “I think it’s horrible to be here. I don’t like the way not everybody is wearing a mask,” says Tara Oliver.

*****

The Behavioural Research Unit at the Economic and Social Research Institute has been trying to predict how people might behave during a pandemic since the start of the crisis. “This has been the biggest change in behaviour that you could possibly have over such a short period of time,” says the ESRI’s Dr Deirdre Robertson.

“One of the kind of key things that we predicted based on the prior literature was that concern for other people is one of the driving forces of people’s behaviour in situations like this. People will put aside their own interests in the interest of the public good in a crisis.” So saying ‘keep your distance’ was not nearly as effective as telling people to do it for the protection of others.

Another study carried out by the ESRI just last week found that the public underestimated the beneficial effect of everyone wearing masks.

The research also found that people predicted that the easing of restrictions would happen more slowly than it has. “You might think that people are kind of gung-ho to get started again. But they actually seem to be a bit more cautious.”

On the top floor at Dundrum, there’s no hesitation when it comes to booking beauty treatments. There are no appointments left today at the brow reshaping stand in McCabe’s pharmacy. The Therapie beauty clinic next door has just reopened for laser treatments and fillers and is already booked up until August. “There was such a backlog for Botox,”  says clinic manager Liz Hatton.

The realisation that this is the new norm does get you down a little bit

Brothers Kevin and David Johnson, who are in Dundrum for shopping, found the lockdown hard going. “We just got gym equipment in the back garden to keep our normal routine going. But it’s not the atmosphere of the actual gym,” says Kevin.

They haven’t been out for a drink yet: going into a pub for 90 minutes, sticking with the same friends, and then going home again doesn’t appeal. They abandoned plans to go away because it would only be “half the experience” of a holiday. “Even coming here with all the hand sanitisers, the masks, the realisation that this is the new norm does get you down a little bit,” says Kevin.

One of the things on their minds is that they are both currently single. “It’s going to be a tough time to be single. This is obviously the new normal until the vaccine comes along,” he says.

*****

Later that day, in the Blanchardstown Centre, compliance levels with mask wearing have dropped again. I count about 10 to 15 per cent of people wearing them. Despite the constant announcements over the tannoys in TK Maxx, only two people are wearing masks inside. People are congregating close together around the sunglasses stand, and picking glasses out of the bin where they’re supposed to be returned to be sanitised.

“It’s my first day out and I can see loads of cars and loads of people. I think it’s just too much,” says Lisa Sibanda, who’s on her way to buy a present for her daughter Louise’s second birthday. She’s one of the few people I see wearing a mask. She knows somebody in her community who died of Covid-19. Now she is praying there won’t be a second wave.

“I think it’s reopening way too fast. We’ll just have to keep fingers crossed the virus is all gone.”

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