It was in late winter as the vernal equinox approached and life as we knew it ceased to exist that the tape began to unfurl and snake out on the city streets before me. Yellow, white and red, usually shiny, always plastic, and hitherto mostly used at crime scenes and to control crowds at big events. At first, the taped lines were judicious and practical; marking out 2m for customers waiting in line outside the supermarket, illustrating one way systems in the shops that remained open, and encouraging customers to keep their distance from the tills to protect checkout staff from coughs and sneezes.
As ‘lockdown’ eased and the country reopened, the tape spread at a faster rate than the virus, delineating ‘safe’ from ‘dangerous’, and moving from practical, helpful even, to ever more creative, unsettling, and sometimes even comical uses. Children’s play park gates and play equipment, public benches, the tables and chairs at cafes and outdoor attractions, the doors on public toilet cubicles, door and window handles, bus shelter seats, ATMs, all decked out in stripes, garish reminders that normal life is on pause. There is no sadder sight than a children’s swing set on a hot spring day, marked out of bounds with a tangle of plastic tape, as if contaminated by radioactive fallout.
I don’t mind encountering visual reminders of the pandemic where they are helpful or sensible. Nor do I object to the changes that have been made to the built environment and public spaces in order to reduce the risk of transmission as the world outside our front doors reopens. I cover my face in indoor public spaces like a diligent citizen, I wash my hands frequently, and I keep my distance from other people when out and about. I support many of the measures that have been brought in to mitigate the risks associated with doing business during a pandemic. That said, I can’t help but think that there must be a better way than hazard tape to mark up our cities and public spaces. All this hazard tape, all these signs in ‘danger’ colours, they are not helping our public or private anxiety, which early reports show is at an all time high. Simple ‘out of use’ notices should suffice for doors, along with upturned or repositioned street or cafe furniture where necessary. Such measures would be just as effective at keeping us apart, without constantly reminding us every which way we look that there’s a global pandemic taking place. That’s not to speak of the mess we are making with the mountains of plastic waste this pandemic and the mitigation of risk has so far generated, from supermarket groceries delivered in single use bags, to gloves, single use masks, sterilising wipes, and the ever present hazard tape. We are in this for the long haul, and it is time that we moved beyond quick fixes to find solutions that work long term and protect our mental as well as physical health, together with the environment.
Of all the uses of hazard tape I’ve encountered during these past months, my favourite – and by far the most ludicrous – is this curious little strip of red and white marking off a corner of a flower bed at one of my city’s two botanical gardens. I don’t know about you, but I am incredibly relieved to know that this little lavender bush has been made ‘covid secure’.
The use of hazard tape extends beyond the pragmatic into the sphere of performance art, and goes hand in hand with hygiene theatre; the performance of hygiene measures that are in place to make the public feel safe even if they aren’t strictly necessary. On my first afternoon back in the swimming pool in mid August after the five month shutdown, I watched with amusement as staff spent 30 minutes pouring and brushing chlorinated water from a yellow hazard bucket over the already chlorine saturated boom which divides the 50m pool in two. The boom which, in the three years since the pool opened I have not once seen anyone, not even a child, lick, rub their face on, sit down on, or even walk on, as it is out of bounds to all but the lifeguards.
The changing rooms are closed, so we have to change pool side, wearing a mask until we are in the water and using hand gel on two separate occasions in the one minute it takes us to get from the front door where we queue outside rain or shine, to the pool or gym. This, despite the fact all the doors are open and there is nothing to make contact with. I almost want to lick my hands or pick my nose, just to make it all feel worthwhile and give the alcohol something to clean. In the gym we are instructed to sanitise our hands, obey the hazard tape bays, and double cleanse any equipment we touch before and after we use it. In the fifteen minutes between bookable sessions, gym staff go around the gym sanitising each station for a third and final time, following their trail of ‘clean me’ postcards they drop at your feet each time you enter a squat rack or sit down at a new machine. The air is thick with alcohol, and my hands dry from all the gel.
I feel that it is taboo to question these measures; to express frustration or scepticism about any individual measure’s effectiveness is seen as tantamount to being a 5G conspiracist or anti-vaxxer. So I don’t, I just go along with it so as not to cause others offence or anxiety. The public perception of risk is so heightened at the moment, and the government’s response to the virus has been so full of holes, contradictions and outright fuck ups* that businesses have taken it into their own hands to establish their own policies and procedures. Increasingly, businesses want the paying public to feel safe, and so they go above and beyond to perform safety, even if the additional measures they bring in are not strictly necessary. Uncertainty – and there is much of it – breeds fear. Fear breeds hysteria.
Six months on from its first appearance, the hazard tape shows no sign of departing. Whilst the warning lines outside supermarkets have long since peeled off and blown away, leaving a ghost trace of adhesive on the rain-slicked and leaf covered concrete paving slabs of our city streets, the tape is proliferating elsewhere as schools and remaining businesses attempt to reopen. Mental health and environmental impacts aside, it’s harmless enough, so I will try not to grumble too much about the current state of affairs, and to be a good citizen, taking heed of the tape’s instructions and warnings to keep me safe from killer toilets and garden shrubs. I will double cleanse my hands before immersing myself in chlorine, and amuse myself with the free public theatrics until such a time as theatres and cinemas fully reopen, and I will remind myself that this, hopefully, won’t last forever.
* I try not to use swear words in the writing I share online, so as to not cause offence to those with a more delicate or religious disposition. Contrary to the nonsense I was told as a child, I am not of the opinion that only stupid people swear, and believe that swear words form an important part of any language for the sake of emphasis and clarity. Sometimes it’s important to call a spade a spade. From the 60,000 and counting dead to the lack of PPE in hospitals and care homes, delays in introducing physical distancing restrictions in March, the exams fiasco and mixed messaging to schools and businesses, I can think of no better phrase to describe de Pfeffel’s government’s handling of the first six months of the pandemic.