I had left London closed and on my return, in these days, I found deeply different things, both positive and negative; for others, it is as if it virus, quarantines or lockdowns had never happened.
The first big difference I noticed was on the subway from Heathrow towards the center: the great public transport symbol of London slowly begins to fill up again. Of course, the capacity is still very low considering the low number of flights arriving: there is always a comfortable seat. Leaving the city, what impressed me most was the subway: all the way from central London to Heathrow alone in my wagon, in a post-apocalyptic-like scenario, like “I am Legend”. But without zombies.
Even in buses, the situation seems to have improved. There is (fortunately) the obligation to wear a mask – and I must say that public transport is the place where this rule is most respected – and there is a limit on the number of passengers (at the bus entrance the writing often appears “This bus can hold a maximum of thirty passengers”), but there is no longer the obligation to go up to the center to avoid contact with the driver; you go back up on the usual driver’s side.
It will be that Boris Johnson he is campaigning to get people back to the office (clashing with London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who wants to be clear about the security guarantees before going along with the prime minister); will be that there are rumors of a promotion to not make anyone pay for the first trip on the metro to return to create that flow towards the center typical of big cities, and amplified to the maximum power in London: the fact is that there is an impression of greater use of public transport, with Londoners no longer taking them exclusively out of imperative necessities, as had instead been the case since March.
Speaking of means, I decided to pick up where I left off, namely from the bikes of the London municipality, trying to enjoy the last days of late light and apparent heat. Beyond the growing trend of using e-bikes, I have noticed that the roads have become visibly more suitable for two wheels, with many bike symbols on the asphalt that help to identify the best routes, away from the big city streets.
Under my house there is a covered parking for bicycles for a fee with electronic locks to enter; along the route that I usually do, poles have been placed, which light up at night, to delimit the cycle paths and separate them from possible invasions by machines.
And then there is where it seems the virus never existed. In pubs (and I guess a little also in restaurants). In closed places there is the obligation of masks, or rather of “face coverings”: in fact, every now and then you see people entering the supermarket with a scarf or a T-shirt raised over their nose and mouth; even a couple of days ago a person tried, unsuccessfully, with a real snake.
But there is no huge stiffness or strong reactions from other customers in case someone has forgotten their accessory to cover their face. Friday night I went to the pub with a few friends and it felt like a parallel world. It was the weekend before the “rule of six” came into effect, which provides for a maximum of six people in all social situations starting Monday, September 14, and that certainly didn’t help.
The outside of the pub was full of people: large groups of people passing beers among themselves, as if nothing had happened. Someone had a mask inside the club – especially Italians – but holding it on his face gave a strange feeling, of belonging to a small minority. Overall, the air (and chaos too) was the same as pre-covid.
The waiters had masks, there was a plexiglass to separate the counter from the public, the rows (both for the bathrooms and for the counter) were restricted outside and anyone who entered had to leave their contact details in case of “covid outbreak” . But, if a passer-by had taken a photo from outside and compared it to the same photo at the end of summer 2019, he would not have found many new features.
According to the waiters, the “vibe” (atmosphere) of the place would not have changed with the “rule of six”: after all, it is quite easy to make sure you are not in a circle with more than six people and if you are twelve enough make two out of six. At that point, taking a quick peek with this thought, I struggled to find a single circle that would break the British government’s new pivotal rule of fighting coronavirus.
Let’s go back to what has changed instead. At the market, one of those where I go from time to time to buy fresher food directly from the “farmers”, in Pimlico Road, behind Sloane Square: a rather long line at the entrance, with distances delimited by chalk circles drawn on the sidewalk and a limited number at the entrance with the “one in, one out” technique, most of the people with masks despite being outdoors. All coordinated by a “market worker”. Other lines can be found inside the market, with the reference stalls written on the ground, from “tomatoes” (tomatoes) to “eggs and mushrooms” (eggs and mushrooms).
I experienced a similar sensation in the gym where I go to boxing: paths indicated to enter and exit the various environments; prohibition to use shared items such as lockers and gloves provided; lessons only without contact, and therefore no sparring but only a lot; fever measurement at the entrance. But you have to be careful, because if you get too hot because maybe you ran before you got there, you risk being right on the edge of a tenth of a degree, as happened to a guy who was training the other day. And then, when you have finished using the bag or the mattress, you are provided with sanitizer and handkerchiefs to sanitize.
London has always been a hyper-dynamic city, with places that open and close all the time and buildings that are pulled up suddenly in a few months around the corner. Covid has accentuated the first phenomenon, attacking large chains (from Pizza Express to Pret a Manger): many closed offices and staff cuts. However, despite everything, they continue to open small businesses, even in the catering sector. And this is certainly a good sign.
And the offices? This is the other big issue, in a city that thrives on services and the City, in a huge economy that revolves only around daily commuting between home and office and lunch breaks. Here company policy varies considerably: I know people who have already been told that the office will reopen in August 2021; I also have friends already called back to work in the office, sometimes just a couple of days a week, sometimes full time, perhaps because the company had, before Covid, invested millions of pounds in setting up a London office, or simply for follow Boris’ back to work policy to restore oxygen to the economy.
There are those who have never stopped going to the office, even in full lockdown, although every other day: after all, if you work for a company that buys and sells precious stones, it is not so safe to have them sent home.
According to some, large cities are destined to die from the coronavirus, for others they will transform and simply become “smarter”. Of course, London is changing. For now, some signs indicate the direction of a more technological, flexible and cycle-friendly city: as the prince of Bel-Air would say, “then it’s not that bad”. Apart from a still immense social and economic void, that of the world of events, of which London is the world capital.