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Will a fear of crowds be a real threat to..

Diane Hall



You would think that, having been in relative lockdown since the beginning of the year, when restrictions potentially lift altogether on June 21st that the general public will be gagging to get out there amongst other people, to live the kind of lives we used to have.

Bearing in mind that many people will have been vaccinated at least once by then—especially those who are clinically vulnerable. In theory, there is less reason for the public to fear going out and mixing with others in the latter half of 2021, than at any time in 2020.

Whilst some of us will be pleased to get out there and mingle, however, there’s a real fear from some people concerning the company of others. Research from various universities has shown that people’s stress levels are much higher than they were pre-pandemic, when they contemplate attending events that attract large crowds and visiting places like shopping centres.

Both the retail and hospitality sectors risk a lack of footfall after more than a year of little to no income, some of which is down to how comfortable the general public feels being in the company of others that are not in their household or support bubble.

Pubs were allowed to trade to their customers outdoors on April 12th, and whilst the first weekend following this date saw record takings for many establishments, within days—and most probably prompted by the turn in the weather—some closed their doors (and gardens) again, as the number of customers upholding their booked time slots was likely to bring in less revenue than the business’s costs to open.

In the first few days of non-essential shops reopening, there were pictures in the media of queues snaking round the block for brands such as Primark. I visited my local branch at a quieter time that same week and there were far fewer people in there than I imagined there would be. I admit, this is just one snapshot of one time, however, and not an accurate picture of the whole sector.

When speaking to the people around me, most are happy to get out and about and return to some semblance of their pre-pandemic life. Online, though, the picture appears to be different (if it’s to be believed). I’m a regular visitor to the Mumsnet site, and there have been a few threads where the fear of Covid appears entrenched in some people, a feeling that is unlikely to dissolve when restrictions are lifted. There seems to be no middle ground in the threads I’ve read, either; those commenting are either waiting like caged beasts to mix and mingle, to hug and shake hands, whilst those mentioned are petrified at the thought.

Dr Sit, a professor involved with the research on this subject has this to say: ‘Given that the mere social presence of others in enclosed spaces may cause consumer discomfort, other venues that attract large groups of consumers, such as theatres, recreation centres, concert halls, subway systems, and so forth, may not return to pre-COVID profitability for some time.’ He recognises that some scenarios, such as sporting events and large-scale music gigs/festivals may be different, adding, ‘Our findings may not apply to non-retail collective events, where people crave the social presence of others . . .  and welcome it as an essential part of the experiential co-creation, like the roars from the crowds at a football match.’

Only time will tell whether the date Boris has given us will even be upheld. Time will also show whether the reluctance people may have about mixing with others plays out in reality, once we’re free to do as we please.

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