Nightclubs elated, but doubts cloud England’s ‘Freedom Day’


LONDON — Sparkling wine, confetti, a midnight countdown: It’s not New Year’s Eve, but it might as well be for England’s clubbers. After 17 months of empty dance floors, the country’s nightclubs are reopening with a bang.

From London to Liverpool, thousands of young people plan to dance the night away at “Freedom Day” parties the moment it becomes Monday, which is when almost all coronavirus restrictions in England are due to be scrapped. Face masks will no longer be legally required, and with social distancing rules shelved, there will be no more limits on people attending theater performances or big events.

Nightclubs, which have been shuttered since March 2020, can finally reopen with no occupancy restrictions or mask and testing requirements. Many of the reopening parties planned for the occasion sold out days ahead.

It’s “the moment we’ve been waiting for, that our customers have been waiting for,” Tristan Moffat, operations director of London music venue The Piano Works, said.

The business is keen to open its doors again after losing about 40,000 pounds ($55,000) a month during the pandemic, he said. Its “Freedom Day” bash starts Sunday with a countdown to midnight, when staff members plan to cut a ribbon to the dance floor and serve customers free prosecco.

But while entertainment businesses and ravers are jubilant, many others are deeply worried about the British government’s decision to go ahead with fully reopening the economy and no longer mandating masks at a time when COVID-19 cases are on a rapid upswing. More than 54,000 new cases were confirmed on Saturday, the highest daily number since January, although reported virus deaths have stayed comparatively low so far.

Officials have repeatedly expressed confidence that the U.K.’s country’s vaccine rollout — 67.8% of adults, or just over half of the total population, has received two doses — will keep the threat to public health at bay. But leading international scientists described England’s “Freedom Day” on Friday as a threat to the whole world, and 1,200 scientists backed a letter to British medical journal The Lancet that criticized the government’s decision.

“I can’t think of any realistic good scenario to come out of this strategy, I’m afraid,” said Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester. “I think it’s really a degree of how bad it’s going to be.”

Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, warned that “we could get into trouble again surprisingly fast.” Johnson himself played down talk of freedom and stressed that life wouldn’t instantly revert to how it was pre-pandemic.

Vaccines are not foolproof, virologist Tang explained, especially not against potential new “super variants” that could surface after people are allowed to mix without precautions over the summer. Add a flu resurgence in the colder months and that spells “a winter of very serious proportions,” he said.

Nightclubs in particular are potent spreading grounds, Tang said, because their core customer base — people ages 18 to 25 — became eligible for a first vaccine dose though the National Health Service last month and they haven’t yet been offered the second shots needed to boost immunity.

“That population is not fully vaccinated. They’re not masking. They’re in very close contact, heavily breathing, shouting very loudly to the music, dancing with different people,” he said. “That’s the perfect mixing vessel for the virus to spread and to even generate new variants.”

Johnson has urged nightclubs and other venues with big crowds to use COVID-19 status certification “as a matter of social responsibility,” and only to admit patrons who can show they are double-jabbed, have a negative test result or have recovered from the disease.

There is no legal requirement for them to do so, however. In a flash poll of 250 late night bars and clubs by the Night Time Industries Association last week, 83% said they won’t be asking people about their COVID-19 status, according to Michael Kill, the trade body’s chief executive. Many owners see the passes as a huge turn-off for customers and accuse the government of “passing the buck” to businesses.

“We’ve heard people will boycott businesses that adopt this,” Kill said. “The last thing we want after months of closure is to be again hindered in terms of capacity to trade. Either mandate it or don’t mandate it. This is putting an inordinate amount of pressure on us.”

Russell Quelch, operations director of REKOM UK, the U.K.’s largest operator of late night bars and clubs, called the government stance on COVID-19 passes “unworkable” and unfair.

“Ultimately, there is no difference between a busy pub at midnight and a nightclub. To single out nightclubs doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.

Johnson’s decision to scrap the legal requirement for face coverings in indoor public spaces has also split opinion and sowed some confusion.

Days after the prime minister said masks would still be “expected and recommended” in crowded indoor places but not compulsory, London Mayor Sadiq Khan contradicted the message, saying that passengers on the capital’s subways and buses must continue to wear them.

Some retailers, like bookstore chain Waterstones, said it would encourage customers to keep their masks on. But many believe that, just like COVID-19 status passes, the implementation of such policies will be tricky without the backing of the law.

The end of restrictions in England on Monday will be a critical moment in Britain’s handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 128,000 people nationwide, the highest death toll in Europe. Other parts of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are taking more cautious steps out of lockdown.

Salsa instructor Esther Alvero is one of the many residents who say they’re excited but fearful. A co-founder of Cubaneando, a company that ran salsa club nights, classes and staged performances for gala events before the pandemic, Alvero says she has had next to no income in the past year. Her savings had all gone, and her dancers have had to survive by taking part-time jobs as Amazon delivery drivers or cleaners.

“To be honest, we can’t wait to get back to it. But in certain ways it’s scary, from nothing to all at the same time,” Alvero said.

“I’m scared but we have to survive,” she added. “We have no option because the economic consequences could be worse than COVID itself.”

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