July 19: What will change on 'Freedom Day'?
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The long-awaited relaxing of restrictions is set to come into force on Monday, July 19. But, what is actually changing?
As we moved through the different stages of the government's roadmap to unlocking restrictions throughout 2021, step four is almost upon us, after being pushed back to July 19 from June 21 due to rising case numbers.
The plan was for all over 18s to have been offered at least one COVID-19 vaccination by the July date, in order for the relaxation of the remaining rules to go ahead.
This means all legal limits of social contact will be removed, and remaining premises, including nightclubs, will be able to open, and social distancing rules will be scrapped.
It also means mask wearing will no longer be a legal requirement in public indoor spaces - although in a survey carried out by the Comet, 55.7 per cent said they would carry on wearing a mask in public places.
That said, businesses will be able to set rules for entry to their own premises.
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Pubs and restaurants
Perhaps the biggest change for pubs and restaurants is that they will no longer require ordering with QR codes or via table service, and punters will finally be able to go up and order at the bar.
When pubs were allowed to open on April 12, but only provide outdoor table service, the Comet visited a number of businesses, including The Arena Tavern in Letchworth. The pub in Arena Parade adapted with an outdoor seating area in order to serve customers.
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Gyms and other services
Since gyms reopened earlier this year, most users will have had to wear a face mask in communal areas or faced restrictions on the number of people allowed in a group class - but as social distancing measures are being scrapped these may no longer be a requirement.
It will also no longer be a legal requirement for those visiting a salon or barbers to wear a face covering. Although this is at the owners' discretion.
One Baldock barbershop, Tyler's of Baldock, has taken to social media to ask its customers to continue to wear face coverings, due to rising coronavirus case numbers.
Cinemas and theatres
Cinemas and theatres will return to full capacity, which will have a big impact on Stevenage's Gordon Craig Theatre, as well as Letchworth's Broadway Cinema & Theatre. The Heritage Foundation, which runs the Letchworth cinema and theatre, has recently announced it will be offering an outdoor cinema at Standalone Farm this summer.
It also welcomed 100 local NHS heroes to celebrate the NHS' 73rd birthday, with a 'thank you' screening.
Going for your weekly shop may not change too significantly, Tesco is carrying out an internal review into its mask-wearing policy but is presently still following the current guidance, while Sainsbury's CEO Simon Roberts said the decision to wear one would be down to the individual: "I think in the end it will come down to the choices that individual customers and colleagues want to make. It is going to be driven by customer and by colleague choice.”
Working from home where possible will no longer be a government directive.
Ahead of the great unlocking, Stevenage Borough Council leader Sharon Taylor said: “It is positive news that we are about see the lifting of restrictions although we do so with the understanding that some people will still be feeling nervous about COVID.
"July 19 marks an important date for individuals, families and businesses to begin to feel that things are returning to something a little more like the way it was before the COVID pandemic hit us.
"However, we do need to move forward carefully and safely, we are already seeing increases in numbers of COVID cases which reminds us of the need to continue to protect ourselves and each other.
"For those who are not yet vaccinated, now is the time to get along to one of the walk-in sessions and get the protection that vaccination offers. As restrictions are removed for now, let’s enjoy warm weather and brighter days as we look to safely get out and about again after the 16 months of lockdown restrictions. There is plenty to enjoy, explore in our beautiful town to #RediscoverStevenage.”
Speaking of the relaxing of lockdown rules on July 19, Hitchin town centre manager Tom Hardy added: "I think it's going to be an interesting process for businesses, and obviously, having all the rules around social distancing being lifted, it's going to make a big difference."
Tom continued to say that although all legal restrictions will be lifted from Monday, a selection of the town's businesses may choose to continue to enforce mask wearing and social distancing: "I've spoken to some pubs who will carry on with table service; there'll be no one coming up to the bar, because they want to understand how their customers feel.
"I think it could be detrimental to a business if they suddenly packed people in -that actually might make people feel a bit uncomfortable.
He added: "Although Monday is 'Freedom Day', actually, for businesses, it's the start of the first day where people can make their own choices, and businesses don't quite understand what choices people want to make yet. There are some people that feel they are absolutely fine without a mask on, and there are some other people that don't want to do that. We've got to consider those who have not had a vaccine, or maybe aren't able to have a vaccine, that still have to continue to be careful.
"I think we're a long way off getting back to complete normality, but I think giving the people of Hitchin the chance to make their own decisions and make their own choices when they use the town centre, I think is a step in the right direction."