In the bustling Hertfordshire market town of Bishop’s Stortford, the government decision to drop compulsory mask-wearing, social distancing and venue check-in for English businesses from 19 July was being met with trepidation by business owners this weekend.
“It feels very wrong of government to put it in the hands of business to make the decision. It puts us in a very awkward position,” said Jackie Colman, owner of Hair by Elements salon and the Skin Clinic by Urban Spa, over the sound of whirring hairdryers and snipping scissors.
Despite the change in government guidance over face coverings and other Covid safety measures, Colman and her 26 staff at the hairdresser and nearby beauty salon have decided to continue wearing face coverings, and will ask their customers to do the same, even after they cease to be mandatory.
“Some people can’t wait to throw masks away and some want to continue,” she said. “Our policy is that we have a duty of care to our team members and guests sitting here.”
As a “close-contact” business, where hairstylists or beauticians often lean over clients to cut their hair or carry out a facial, Colman said it felt like the right course of action.
Since reopening in April, staff at close-contact services have been required to wear medical face masks as well as a clear visor or goggles, while their customers also needed to wear a face covering, unless removal was essential.
When the Observer visited Bishop’s Stortford, the majority of friends and families popping into the town’s shops and hospitality venues, or walking through the town’s Jackson Square shopping centre, were wearing masks.
However, opinions are divided over whether the government should have given businesses more discretion on how to proceed, following its change in Covid safety advice from 19 July.
There have been differing decisions among the nation’s best-know chain retailers on how to approach the new guidance.
Marks & Spencer and H&M have joined Waterstones and Sainsbury’s – all with branches in Bishop’s Stortford – in asking customers and staff to continue wearing masks.
“I’m quite anxious,” said Danielle Thomas, owner of the South Street Pantry. “I’m hopeful it’s the right direction but I don’t want to fall back, like what happened last year in November and December.”
Indoor and outdoor trading has been strong at the 33-year-old’s cafe since reopening, and little will change after Monday. Thomas has decided to ask her staff to continue wearing face masks, and she will encourage customers to do the same when entering or walking through the venue.
Like many hospitality business owners, Thomas has also recently faced staff shortages, after two workers – including her baker – were “pinged” by NHS test and trace, and asked to self-isolate.
Over in Atkins restaurant, owned by Daisy Conn and her partner James Atkins, what to do on 19 July is still very much an unanswered question. “I need to make a decision before Monday, which is stressful,” said Conn. “I’m in two minds. I know it’s supposed to be our road to freedom but I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to wear them and people not feel safe, or wear them and put people off.”
Having opened the restaurant in February 2020, just weeks before the first Covid lockdown, Conn hopes the further lifting of restrictions will allow the business to trade normally, including hosting parties.
“The function rooms have been just sitting there redundant as we weren’t allowed parties of six from more than two households,” she said.
On a bright, sunny day, groups of teenage boys and pensioners had sought out the cool solace of the Ace of Lanes bowling alley, where manager Jo Seabright is also looking forward to welcoming larger groups to the venue, and being able to host children’s parties.
“The government seems very indecisive at the moment over whether it wants masks or not. For our staff, it will be their personal choice,” she said. Many of the younger staff don’t want to wear face coverings any longer, even though they are not fully vaccinated, but Seabright will continue to wear her sparkling black mask.
Club-goers in Bishop’s Stortford will have to do without their local night-time venue for a little longer. The owners of Ace of Lanes are not planning to open their Bacchus nightclub next door until early August.
Down the road at women’s fashion retailer Muse Boutique, sales advisers Katie Charman and Jayne Ralph can’t wait to cast off their face coverings. Along with the other three members of the sales team, they are fully vaccinated – like many of their customers – and are regularly tested for Covid.
Standing next to the racks of summer dresses in florals and bright prints, Charman and Ralph said they believed many shoppers would prefer to make up their own minds.
The mask-wearing requirement “has affected trade without a doubt”, said Charman. “Some people haven’t tried things on, it puts them off.”
“Lots of our regulars who have been coming for years have been blunt in telling us their preference. Especially if they are having hot flushes,” added Ralph. In future, if they won’t come in because we aren’t wearing masks, we would put one on.”
Carla Marshall, owner of interiors shop Carla’s Curios and Creations, considers the end of mask-wearing a step in the right direction, after a difficult period of stop-start trading.
“I’m glad the choice is there. I don’t think it will really make a difference for me,” Marshall said, adding that she is exempt from wearing a mask. “I really want to see normality and people back shopping.”