Hard News by Russell Brown


The company of strangers

I didn't really debate whether I was going to fly last week. My mother was in Wellington Hospital after a traumatic health event, I am the only surviving direct family member and she needed me there. If Air New Zealand was going to sell me a ticket, I was going to buy one. And if they weren't, I would drive and make my case at any checkpoint I encountered.

It turned out I was able to buy a ticket in the usual fashion for the sole flight between Auckland and Wellington on Thursday. Booking a rental car and a hotel room were also fairly normal processes.

Auckland Airport's domestic terminal was, as you would expect, quiet on the day. Only passengers were admitted to the building and only through one entrance. Inside, counters were unmanned and the food court was shuttered. It was very, very empty. There was no queue for security and up in the flight lounge there was room for us to all sit very far away from each other.

Being on the plane was a different matter. I'd been assigned an aisle seat with no option to change it and I was surprised to discover that there was a passenger in the window seat, 80 centimetres away. This seating configuration was replicated for the length of the cabin. More unnerving was the way people finding their own seats, further back than mine, were so close that they inevitably brushed against me. The physical distance between us was zero.

It was the first time in at least six weeks that I'd been this close to people I didn't know and it felt alarming. I had been intending to just trust the air filtering in the cabin, but I reached into my bag, got my mask and put it on until everyone was seated. I knew there were few if any Covid-19 infections in the community, but I didn't know who these people were.

On arrival, everything in the city was mediated by Level 3. The listed entrance to my hotel was closed when I got there and no one came to clean my room or empty the waste bin. Parking was free everywhere and most of the restaurants and cafes in the area had some form of contactless sale going on. I installed the Regulr app but it was confusing and it turned out to be easier to just wander around and look for food and coffee. Going to the supermarket seemed comfortingly familiar.

The hospital seemed to be operating an array of visitor policies: I had been told one nominated family visitor would be allowed and the staff at the main entrance were kind and friendly about locating my name on the list each day, asking me a list of questions and letting me in. The hospital's brand of hand sanitiser was light and boozy-smelling and I rather liked it. But signs by the lifts still proclaimed a policy of no visitors except under exceptional circumstances. And when I arrived on Saturday morning, it took about 10 minutes to get in because there were two family groups ahead of me. I'm not about to complain about a hospital showing compassion.

I encountered my only checkpoint on the Friday morning. Just north of Plimmerton, the motorway was coned off and vehicles were directed to the truck weighing station where perhaps 50 police officers in hi-viz stood in rows. I explained the nature of my journey – I was heading to my mother's house in Paraparaumu to fetch important personal items that hadn't come with her in the ambulance – and the explanation was accepted without question. "Drive safe," said the police officer.

I returned on Sunday, and even though I'd been able to leave Wellington Airport via the baggage claim area, I was not able to enter that way. I'd done the self check-in Auckland quite alone, but in Wellington there were three staff hovering anxiously. Wellington, always a rather twitchy terminal for security, was overmanned and twitchier than ever. All checked luggage was going through the scanner and at security there were at least twice as many staff as they needed, which meant a lot of anxious hand-waving and chatter.

"Please try to maintain two metres distance from other passengers," said the boarding announcement. We were called in rows, five rows at a time, but it didn't really change the reality of distancing on the plane. I saw that one woman was carrying her boarding pass inside a passport and winced, even though I knew that she would be outbound from Auckland and not an arrival. I put on my mask again, until we were airborne. It was hot and annoying and my reading glasses fogged up.

About a third of the passengers were wearing masks and they were a slightly different bunch to Friday's southbound flight. Many of the people leaving Auckland seemed to be headed for work, some of them to essential service on farms. Many of the people leaving Wellington seemed to be on their way to leaving New Zealand.

I'm using this experience to try and think through what happens if and when we move to the revised Level 2 Covid-19 restrictions today. The rules attempt to lock in standards for distancing from strangers, notably at hospitality sites. Bars, cafes and restaurants will need to be able to seat every patron and tables will need to be distanced.

It will be difficult for most establishments and, on the face of it, almost impossible for music venues, where people typically stand – or dance – shoulder to shoulder. The government has banned dancing.

I feel this pretty keenly. The people who play music at bars and music venues, the people who come to hear them and the people who operate the venues, they're all my tribe. The Save Our Venues initiative has demonstrated the loyalty people feel to these places and enabled a remarkable flow of short-term financial support.

But that won't last forever, and I wonder if we'll find solutions that keep these cultures viable while safeguarding our ability to manage the virus in the community. For smaller places, like the Portland in Kingsland and my local, Cupid bar, I wonder if private parties, with a fixed group of known individuals on a contact list, might be an avenue. I'm going to feel more secure having a dance with friends who I know have been observing the rules than I am getting on a bus or a plane with strangers.

For larger venues – let alone concerts and music venues – the solutions will be different and perhaps more elusive. We may simply not have any festivals next summer. But if that happens, perhaps the communities who attend them could maintain those bonds and party with the people they know. Getting something that works and sustains the culture may require imaginative effort on all sides. I think the effort will be worthwhile.

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