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Postcard from Aberdeen: the 'granite city' in lockdown

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

James Stanyer

After four months inside the granite fortresses of Aberdeen, with adherence to and respect for the rules generally very high, there was a sense that maybe the omnipresent grey rock and crisp sea air gave the city’s inhabitants some sort of geo-immunity from Covid-19. Even as our English counterparts navigated a storm of admissions for most of April, Aberdeen Royal Infirmary was eerily quiet according to some witnesses. So, when a degree of cautious normality resumed and beer gardens opened their doors on 6th July, until 10pm each day, it felt as though an amicable medium was reached; people could dip their toes into society once again. However, during a highly comparative, statistic-driven pandemic, complacency is easy to slip into when the spotlight is elsewhere. From my own observations, when certain local bars were able to operate without taking your name on entry and stayed open beyond midnight, there was an air of freedom and rebellion in being in contact with others again. In this article I will examine how this amicable medium was lost so unexpectedly as well as the ongoing impact on Aberdeen as a city.

Something I heard early on during this episode was that most unimaginable scenarios are increasingly likely the longer it goes on; whether that is the Prime minister falling ill or your hometown being locally locked down. Maybe it was a case of “when”, rather than “if” for the virus to move up north. Regardless, it was a surprise when the announcement came from the Adams Lounge & Hawthorn Bar at 5pm on Saturday 1st August. “A customer who recently visited the premises has since tested positive... {for you-know-what}”, it read. Much like Cluedo when you are trying to narrow down who has what and where, the atmosphere was one of intrigue and shock. Especially as my friends and I were in the very bar when the story went viral. Already reeling from finding unwanted Jalapeno in the Burrito I had ordered an hour before, this announcement took my shock to the next level! The reality of the situation left many questions in our heads, how widespread will this get? Have we been compromised by being here? As we mulled and planned our next destination, one thing was for certain, new footfall into the bar certainly tanked following the news. In the days that followed Aberdonians started to realise the extent of this outbreak and by Tuesday a list of some 15 city bars had been flagged as potential transmission zones. Reading through this list, many of us realized with a sinking feeling that the party was over for now. By the end of the first week of the news breaking, 165 people had apparently tested positive and many hundreds more contacted by Track and Trace Scotland. A number of my friends, including myself have since been tested and despite many of us coming back negative, the close degrees of separation here mean you are never far away from someone who is less fortunate.

It has been over a week since restrictions fell back on Aberdeen; pubs and restaurants are shut and the 5-mile travel limit returned. Isolation fatigue is palpable; the evening roads empty once again and gazebos that were once lively, silent. Hunkering down no longer has its novelty, only necessity. In daytime, people are still visiting the city centre to shop, but a higher proportion are wearing masks on the street. When the news emerged on Wednesday that there had been a train derailment only a short distance from Stonehaven due to heavy rain and flooding, it was a sombre day for the city. It reaffirmed a cruel sense of vulnerability at an already fragile time, as well as putting into perspective the sometimes-petty restlessness of being partially locked down.

Beyond the bickering and shaming on social media by some people in response to the Aberdeen Lockdown, the reality is truly being felt by small businesses. During a visit to the Biocafe on Rosemount Viaduct this week, I was told by a member of staff that she has seen a sharp fall in customers since the measures because people can no longer sit in. This seems all the more harsh as that cafe had just started to get used to welcoming seated customers. Even as far as Braemar, a staff member at the popular Bothy café told me on the phone that she has seen a significant drop in takeaway and seated service. Therefore, even with many places still open, the resilience of local entrepreneurs and citizens is no doubt being tested. Melt, a popular cheese restaurant on Belmont Street, has had to admit defeat and close its doors for good, it would seem. The owner Michelle admitted in a post on social media “ We had changed our business a hundred times during the first lockdown. Then the second lockdown happened” The fact that a small business, like Melt, went under during the ‘Eat-out-to-Help-out’ scheme shows the unfortunate timing of the outbreak. One wonders if restaurants that would have benefited from it, had they been open, are liable for some financial assistance. On a potentially positive note, members of Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce are calling for the city to get an additional two weeks of the scheme when restaurants are able to reopen, seeing as its uptake has been hampered by the measures. We watch this space.

Looking forward, with the restrictions continuing another week, many on social media are asking how serious the Aberdeen cases are and if such blanket measures are sustainable responses to rising cases in the future. Although trust in the response is strong, the mental and physical health reserves of people of all ages cannot be taken for granted in the months ahead. As of 13th August, there were 3 people in Intensive care in the whole of Scotland for Covid-19 and deaths caused directly by the virus have hit their lowest levels since early March. Seeing how these numbers change, along with hospital admissions will be important in the months ahead. Despite these challenges facing the people of Aberdeen, as the first Scottish city to experience such an acute measure, it could pave the way to reshape government policy going into the Autumn. In a month’s time, by assessing how severe the cases now become and if the curve flattens, Aberdeen will be in a revealing position to test the efficacy of lockdown measures. It may be that the best course of action economically and socially is a middle ground where details are taken in all venues and a civic respect for the rules is non-negotiable. The Silver City may have broken off on its own in some choppy waters for now, but if anyone knows a lighthouse and a glistening harbour when it sees one, it’s Aberdeen.

Photography: James Stanyer

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