The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world over the course of a few months. This is my story from the perspective of riding a bicycle in Amsterdam.
COVID-19 Reaches the Netherlands
Measures to combat the virus were first introduced on March 16th. When the news broke, locals stormed out to grab essentials. Lineups formed at every coffeeshop. Stores closed and restaurants which offered takeaway began making preparations for contact-free pickup and social distancing.
Amsterdam transformed from a bustling city to one that resembled a film location for the movie 28 Days Later. The red lights were on but no one was in the windows in the infamous Red Light Districts. Streets were empty except for joggers, people walking their dogs and drug dealers.
This was all happening at time when flu season was at its peak making one thing very obvious. Everyone was sick. In the first week, I would often hear more coughing on the streets than car horns and bike bells combined. With the mild hysteria of the coronavirus, it effected the psyche of people when social interaction was involved.
The Delivery Gig
Credit needs to be given to Deliveroo for proactively implementing measures and taking COVID-19 seriously. Keeping a distance with a contact-free approach was mandatory.
This was not only responsible but prudent. I had been murmuring for months before the virus hit the Netherlands that delivery riders would be a catalyst for any outbreak. After all, they are constantly opening doors and ringing bells, while some use their grubby fingers to pick their teeth and partake in other ungodly behaviour. In my opinion, this makes riders a prime contagion for spreading infections.
Responding to Social Interaction Measures
How did people respond to receiving their orders? First I have to draw attention to a study by Princeton psychologists which found it takes only a tenth of a second to form an impression of somebody. Others believe it takes 2 or 3 seconds. So when it came to delivering an order, there was enough time to sense how people feel in keeping their distance.
After making contact, riders were required to leave the order on the ground and step back 1.5 meters. Reactions ranged from confusion to chuckling amusement. Before long, the new exchange became the norm and everyone expected it. A few anxiously glared through the crack of an opening door and waited when it was safe to step out.
Dealing with Uncertainty
It was clear restaurants were being hit hard financially with many long faces and no customers. But it also provided an opportunity for other establishments to join the delivery service to offset their losses.
Big names like Happyhappyjoyjoy, Ron Gastrobar and Michelin Star restaurant Rijks were among the new additions. The latter of which took control of all central Amsterdam one weekend in a massive operation to unload their stockpiles of food.
What If I Get Sick?
It was glorious the streets were all mine, but there was something pretty unsettling about not seeing a single person for blocks. Delivering a tub of cookie dough ice to someone high on Amnesia Haze late at night had me second guessing things.
I began to reflect on my original tagline for Rolling Spoke…
“If you can breathe, bike.”
What will happen if I get the virus? What if I can’t breathe? OMG I’m going to DIE!
I came to realize it wasn’t worth it to put myself or others at risk. Within a few days, I put away my delivery gear.
A Reason to Go Out
There seemed to be a universal confusion on what constitutes a reason to go out and whether it was prudent. But it’s important to note that restrictions in the Netherlands were far more lax compared to our European neighbours.
“Don’t leave the house unless you have a reason. If you have a reason, you may leave the house.”
Adjusting to a New World
One of the most uplifting moments during the early part of the pandemic was hearing the church bells ring in the evening while residents applauded and banged on pots in support of the health care workers and first responders.
There had been a heavy police presence throughout the city, but the cordial attitude towards others continued as the weeks went by. Locals respected social distancing but when it came to riding bikes, it was life as usual. Masks were mandatory on public transportation with only a handful of locals using them while biking.
Restaurants opened up on June 1st. They were allowed to extend their patios to the sidewalks, set tables across the street and take over parking spaces. The newly terraced cafes brought a welcoming ambience and renewed life back to Amsterdam. The brief lineups at grocery stores and banks were a thing of the past, trumped by the queues at pizza joints and ice cream parlours.
Hard Times for Many During COVID-19
But not to be overlooked is the fallout during this unprecedented time. The work of Laser 3.14 was everywhere, suggesting that businesses were being boarded up.
I witnessed many wipeouts, nearly all were self-inflicted. This could be due to having a brain fart when riding on empty streets. But there was also significant rise in the number of drunk people, both riding and walking.
I returned to delivering in May. In speaking to one restaurant owner, they mentioned they’ve had a significant decline in the number of orders they receive. Even though people were buying more per order, it was barely enough for them to break even.
I also experienced a drop in orders. This could be partly due to people not having the money to spend. But also because of the fact that locals figured out they could pick up their own food.
There was also a pendulum swing of extremes. A city once overflowing with tourists turned into a ghost town overnight. 13% of people living in Amsterdam work in the hospitality industry. This left a devastating scar on the economy. It wasn’t until early June when I spotted the first tourists trickling into the city.
Having Optimism and Gratitude
Prior to the pandemic, there was a crisis of sorts with the deluge of visitors coming into Amsterdam. Now there is sense of optimism when locals talk about “getting their city back.” We appear to have met a balance as tourists slowly stream back in.
Circumstances may change with a second wave on the horizon. Having gratitude for the simple things in life like riding a bike can help put things into perspective. It’s not delusional thinking but it simply shifts your focus on what’s important in life and gives you peace of mind.
This is Who We Are
It’s easy to pander to fears during this time but I have to give credit to Amsterdammers. I can’t give examples of people demanding social distance, incidents involving pepper spray or angry protests. It simply wasn’t my experience.
I sense others feel the same way as this can be summed up by someone’s response to a Laser 3.14 tag in which they wrote “And this is who we are.” Of course others may think differently about the COVID-19 pandemic. But this is just modest spin of a rolling spoke on a wheel of stories.