LONDON – The pints were supped and the unkempt hairdos cut and styled as England embarked Saturday on its biggest lockdown-easing yet, one that many think came 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, though wedding guests are limited to 30, and film buffs can go to the cinema. Whatever is being permitted again has to abide by social-distancing rules.
Museums and libraries also got the green light, but gyms, swimming pools, theaters 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 and even stay the night.
Overall, it's the most dramatic easing of the lockdown and one gleefully taken up by those despairing in front of a mirror over the state of their hair.
“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 44,198 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 is blamed for a spike in infections as drinkers abandon social distancing after imbibing a few of their favorite tipples.
The four nations of the U.K. — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are moving at different speeds out of the lockdown. The restrictions in England, with a population of around 56 million, or 85% or the U.K.'s, have been lifted the most, triggering concerns that the Johnson government is being unduly influenced by economic factors.
Johnson 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.”
One pub stood out in Saturday's reopening. The Swan Inn in Ashford, in southeast England, managed to welcome customers even after a car crashed into its front in the early hours of the morning. Ray Perkins, who runs the pub, said it was “absolutely devastating” but that after a long night he didn't want to let anyone who had pre-booked down.
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 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 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 even though the weather was damp and drizzly across the country.
Doug Evans, a 62-year-old retired oil explorationist, said most of the village of Burpham in southern England appeared at some point during the afternoon at the reopening of The George.
“Initially, it felt really odd walking into a pub, but within five minutes the world seemed normal again,” he said.
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.
Jo Kearney in Blaby and Leicester in England contributed to this report.
Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak