Pints poured, unkempt hairdos cut, as England eases lockdown

LONDON — The pints are being supped and the unkempt hairdos cut and styled as England embarked Saturday on its biggest lockdown-easing yet, one that many think has come too soon given still-high levels of coronavirus infections and deaths.

In addition to the reopening of much of the English hospitality sector, including pubs and restaurants, for the first time in more than three months, couples can tie the knot once again and film buffs can catch a movie at the cinema.

Museums and libraries also got the green light, but gyms, swimming pools and nail bars remain shut. Restrictions on travel and social contact were loosened as well; people from different households can now go into each other’s homes, for example.

And many individuals despairing at what they saw in the mirror had their hair professionally trimmed. For all types of businesses, there are social-distancing rules that must be followed.

“It was doing my head in to be honest, I’m just glad it’s gone now,” William Brown, a 25-year-old plant engineer, said at Headley’s Barber Shop in Blaby, central England.

Owner Stephanie Headley, 35, was equally relieved to be back in business for the fist time since the full lockdown was announced on March 23.

Headley said she was a “bit anxious” and has been inundated with appointment requests since the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed the latest easing of the lockdown last week.

“I can’t wait to see all the dodgy haircuts that have come out of quarantine,” she said.

Though the easing of the lockdown was warmly welcomed by many, there are concerns the British government is being overly hasty, even reckless, in sanctioning the changes. The U.K. has experienced one of the world’s worst outbreaks so far; the official coronavirus death toll of 44,131 is the third-highest behind the United States and Brazil.

Critics point to the experience elsewhere, particularly in some U.S. states, where the reopening of bars and restaurants has been blamed for a spike in infections as drinkers abandon social distancing after imbibing a few of their favourite tipples.

Tim Sheehan, co-owner of Franklins, a pub and restaurant in southeast London, said he was concerned Saturday night would be “like New Year’s Eve” in some pubs, particularly those that cater to younger people.

The four nations of the U.K. — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — have eased the virus-prevention restrictions at different speeds over the past few weeks. The restrictions in England, with a population of around 56 million, or 85% or so of the U.K.’s total, have been lifted the most, triggering concerns that the Johnson government is being unduly influenced by economic factors.

Johnson pointed to a sharp reduction in the level of infections and says the decision to ease the lockdown is based on the scientific evidence that people are “appreciably less likely now to be in close proximity” with someone with the virus than at the height of the pandemic.

“This is a big turning point for us,” he said Friday. “We’ve got to get it right.”

Though the lockdown has posed an existential threat to England’s 37,500 pubs, not all that could reopen did. Nik Antona, chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale, said early indications were that around half of pubs have opted against as “they want to see what’s going to happen.”

The Tyne Bar in Newcastle, northeast England, questioned why the easing took place on a Saturday, traditionally the day of the week when most alcohol-related incidents take place. The establishment said it is “genuinely concerned that this could be a day of total chaos” and that it’s “not worth the risk.” It is set to open on Monday instead.

The social-distancing guidelines inevitably mean that going to pubs and restaurants is inevitably going to be a different experience to the one enjoyed pre-lockdown.

An array of operating regulations have to be observed, from registering customers upon entrance to making sure people are spaced at least one meter (3.3 feet) apart from the members of another household if other measures to keep people safe are in place, such as using hand sanitizers. The wearing of masks is optional, even for staff,

Still, customers said the rigmarole was worth it.

“It’s not the drink, it’s the banter with everyone else,” said Frank Green, a regular of The Shropshire Arms, in the northwest England city of Chester.

One city that is not participating in the easing is Leicester, in central England. The government reimposed lockdown restrictions there, including the closure of schools and nonessential shops, after a spike in new infections. Police are out in force in the city to make sure people adhere to the local lockdown.

One local resident, Ali Patel, said some people just hadn’t taken the virus as seriously as they should have and that’s why Leicester is in lockdown again.

“Some people took it seriously and other people didn’t, and it just shows that the people who didn’t turned out to spread it more,” he said.

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