Peter and I recently travelled to Greece but before I get into the nitty gritty of what it’s like to travel during a pandemic, I want to give an update on what life has been like these past five months in the England.
On March 17, 2020, I wrote about how life was changing in England with a lockdown on the horizon. At the time of writing, many businesses had already shut their doors or had started to see a dramatic decline in footfall. Panic buying was in its second week at supermarkets and pharmacies and London felt very different.
Five days later on March 23, 2020, the UK went into full lockdown. Full lockdown meant that only businesses deemed “essential” could remain open. These included supermarkets, bakeries, butchers, fishmongers, pharmacies, banks, pet stores, home improvement shops, newsagents (aka convenience stores), and wine shops
London became a ghost town overnight. The cars were gone. The people were gone. The noise was gone. It was eerie.
In normal times, I would go to the supermarket, on average, four times a week but the panic buying escalated things and I was going daily for three months. In fact, both Peter and I were both going daily for a period of time early on as we needed to divide and conquer across four supermarkets to [hopefully] get everything we needed.
Because restaurants were deemed non-essential, supermarkets became a beehive of activity due to being the only source of food for the first three weeks of lockdown. A queuing system was implemented almost immediately to limit the number of shoppers in the store at any given time and this system is still in place today, August 18, 2020.
Below are a few photos of what queuing looked like at the end of May.
Our only source of espresso for the first three weeks was the bakery around the corner from our flat but they unexpectedly closed around the three-week mark.
Around the same time (three-week mark), pubs and restaurants made their displeasure known to the government regarding alcohol sales. Their argument was that supermarkets were stealing alcohol sales and that pubs should be allowed to reopen as an off-license (aka off-sale) to sell beer, spirits, and takeaway cocktails. The government caved and the definition of an “essential” business was slightly modified to allow pubs to open as off-licenses and restaurants to open for delivery and takeaway.
When the lockdown guidelines were modified, three independent coffee shops near us opened for takeaway only. Two of them were established businesses and the other one had only been open for two weeks prior to lockdown. Customers were not allowed inside businesses other than ones deemed “essential” so we all queued up outside of coffee shops and ordered by standing at the makeshift counters in the doorway and shouting to the barista in the back of the shop (this was also true for ordering at pubs).
Below are examples of “doorway counters”.
Below is a photo of the busiest coffee shop in our area during the lockdown. It did not matter if it was sunny or rainy or if it was 7am or 5pm, the queue was always that long.
At the same time that the coffee shops opened, a couple of mum-and-pop restaurants opened for delivery only. We were happy to have 2-3 restaurant options but it was slightly frustrating that we had to have the food delivered when the restaurant was literally a five-minute walk away.
Simultaneously, two independent pubs near us opened for takeaway. One of the pubs had only been open for six months before lockdown and the other had only been open for 10 days!
Not many positives can be said about lockdown but one of the positives that came out of it is that we’ve established relationships with the business owners who remained open during the lockdown and have developed somewhat of a village feel.
The businesses that remained open during lockdown developed a strong customer base. One Publican (a person who owns or manages a pub) quickly recognized our likes and dislikes and was able to recommend beers to us and even set aside a couple beers for us that we liked because they were no longer being produced.
The five-week mark brought with it “lockdown fatigue”, in part, due to the unseasonably warm and sunny weather. People started congregating in the parks (“Pubs in the Park”) and drinking outside pubs and restaurants. Parks became public toilets and, naturally, signs went up at parks stating things like “This park is not a toilet”.
Some employment restrictions were lifted at the five-week mark (e.g. construction) and the traffic and noise started to roar back to life. I remember walking back from the supermarket one day and being annoyed that I had to press the crosswalk button and wait for the lights to change in order to cross the street because there was so much traffic. It was a moment of reflection on the prior weeks where I never had to worry about being run over by a car or scooter.
With increased traffic levels, our borough installed barriers around bus stops and other pedestrian bottlenecks to give pedestrians more room to keep a physical distance.
Slowly, week-by-week, restaurants and bars opened but for delivery or takeaway only. Sidewalk tables and chairs were replaced by “doorway counters”, food display tables, and random furniture to prevent people from getting too close to staff when ordering.
By week eight, plexiglass starting going up everywhere.
In my opinion, the plexiglass dividers between self-checkout kiosks do more harm than good. They cause a bottleneck in the self-checkout aisles when people are “backing out” of their kiosk space to leave making it impossible to keep a physical distance.
Further lockdown restrictions began being lifted on June 15, and due to this, face coverings were made mandatory on public transportation. On July 24, face coverings were made mandatory when entering restaurants and cafes for takeaway and when inside shops.
Though lockdown restrictions began to ease in mid-June, I consider July 4 the day life starting transforming into the new normal. On July 4, hair salons, restaurants (for eat-in), and pubs (for eat-in) were allowed to open (103 days closed). On July 13, beauty salons opened but with limited services (112 days closed). Approximately two weeks later on July 25, gyms reopened (124 days closed).
We celebrated being able to eat-in at restaurants and bars (and our one-year anniversary of being back in the UK) by riding our bikes to Paddington and drinking ourselves silly at a wine bar called Vagabond in the Little Venice neighborhood.
The UK had one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world and it took us longer to flatten the curve than our European counterparts. We are still in partial lockdown with some types of businesses still being closed. And with European cases on the rise, it looks like we will be heading into a more strict lockdown in the near future.
This year has been exhausting.