Masks and cafes don’t mix

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    Walk in, turn left… “Two Peroni and a peanut slab, please”… then go find a seat at the front and set my mind to the Herald’s Kropotkin crossword.

    Over the past 16 years, this has been my routine for the overwhelming majority of 11.45pm Saturday sailings back to Waiheke as I commute home from my city-side job. Well, for many of those years, it was a Monteiths rather than the Peroni, but you get my drift.

    It’s a habit that’s tough to break, those first beers of my weekend and the guilty half-inch brick of nut-studded chocolate, and even masked-up over recent weeks, it’s one I’ve persisted with. 

    But now, it’s got to stop.

    As I write this, it’s early Wednesday morning and Waiheke – as with the rest of Auckland – is at Covid alert level 3. Gulf News will go to print in the next couple of hours, long before the Government’s afternoon announcement of whether the level will remain in place beyond it’s 11.59pm cutoff tonight or change in some way. After two days of zero cases emanating from the new South Auckland community outbreak, there’s already a headline blaring out “false alarm” on the Stuff website and plenty of optimism that we’re heading back towards the relative freedoms of levels 2 or even 1.

    But regardless of what the prime minister announces from the Beehive theatrette this afternoon, this past three days being thrust back into the blunt reality of Covid restrictions has delivered an important lesson.

    Yes, there have been disruptions, cancellations and postponements of events, upset to the new school year, holiday plans thrown into disarray, and a short, sharp burst of tough financial woes for businesses – but it’s also refocused a few flabby minds on the discipline needed to keep the appalling mortality rates, widespread economic turmoil and lengthy lockdowns outside our border.

    Because although we went hard and fast 12 months ago when that first case was reported on February 28, we’re maybe not being as rigorous now – just as the virus itself is becoming more transmissible and potentially more deadly. And, as it mutates and grows more powerful, so our own lifestyle defences must respond and become more diligent.

    Which is why those beers and peanut slabs will have to go.

    Fullers followed Air New Zealand’s lead this week in closing down their food and beverage service as Auckland entered level 3 and both organisations ought to be praised for – finally – understanding the incoherence of a mandatory mask order that can be negated by the “need” for a coffee, bag of chips or glass of wine.

    This is precisely the sort of loophole that epidemiologist Michael Baker – a man who has been at the forefront of the country’s reaction to the pandemic since day one and who has never wavered from his science-based belief that meticulous mask-wearing needs to be woven into our response – wants closed.

    This week, Mr Baker described mask-wearing as being “tacked on to our alert level system, not integrated into our culture”. 

    The open cafes on our ferries are a symptom of that and they need to close while masks are mandatory.

    Mr Baker has also hit on a way in which we can all of us help in our country’s defence – because for something like mask-wearing to be “integrated into our culture”, it’s going to take more than a mandate from on-high or the creation of a top level Covid science council at the heart of all Government decision-making. No, it’s going to take companies like Fullers and Sealink to realise that masks and cafes don’t mix, and for all of us to adopt masks as part of our everyday lives – like a seatbelt when we drive or a raincoat when we head out on a gloomy day.

    Not a week has gone by over the past year without Gulf News being contacted by readers concerned at the lack of masks on ferries servicing Waiheke and, despite a push from the PM this week encouraging mask use for all Kiwis when in public, there seemed a singular lack of face coverings in most island shops that remained open.

    This absolutely must change.

    Just like the tracer app, masking up is a way in which New Zealanders can not only demonstrate their dedication to our team of five million but also play an active part in helping to protect each other.

    It seems strange that as we draw closer to the anniversary of that first March lockdown, we’re still having a debate over some of the simplest ways in which we can combat this insidious disease. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been so successful at keeping Covid largely locked out of the country, that we’ve become complacent to the importance of keeping one step ahead of its constantly mutating threat. 

    But just as scientists and governments must guard against lagging behind in the speed of their innovation, so we as individuals must constantly look to ways we can adapt our lifestyles to help keep each other safe.

    And the sacrifice of a couple of beers and a peanut slab is surely a simple and effective start. • James Belfield

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