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26 July 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 1:06pm

Covid unlocking: Why are we behaving so badly?

Staff in public-facing roles say they are dealing with more hostile customers than ever following the easing of lockdown.

By Eleanor Peake and Ben van der Merwe

Since Covid-19 restrictions eased in May, Sam* has found it hard to enjoy work. “I’ve been in hospitality for ten years and this has definitely been the point where I have had to deal with some of the rudest customers,” he says. “It wears you down.”

In his bar in central Edinburgh, where restrictions including mask-wearing and a limit on group sizes are still in place, Sam now finds himself forced to de-escalate increasingly fraught situations. “We have at least one person a day who decides that because they’re double-vaxxed they don’t need to follow the guidelines. Recently, an older guy was repeatedly asked to wear a mask when coming inside the bar. Eventually he got right up into my face and started swearing at me, telling me that I’ve ‘ruined pubs’ for him.”

Sam isn’t alone. Since the start of this year, staff in a variety of public-facing sectors have reported a spike in the number of aggressive customers they are forced to deal with. The Federal Aviation Administration in the US reported almost 3,000 instances of “disruptive passengers” since January 2021 – a “significant increase” on last year – with around 2,300 of those involving passengers who refused to wear a face mask. In response to the rise in unruly behaviour, two US airlines banned the sale of alcohol to passengers. 

“I have worked in hospitality for over 25 years and it’s definitely not something I have seen before,” says Neil, who works for an arts cinema in Leicester. “I would probably categorise the general mood as part frustration and part weariness.” For Neil and his colleagues, the most common cause of friction has been asking people to check in via the NHS Covid app. “I have noticed a general ‘oh let’s get on with it’ attitude among the older age group [of customers] but the majority of our staff have only had one or none of the vaccine jabs.”

It isn’t just anger at Covid regulations causing problems. On Britain’s railways, the number of reported violent or sexual offences per passenger doubled or tripled during each of Britain’s lockdowns, while reported thefts also increased. 

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Train travel became riskier during lockdown
Reported incidents per 1,000 passengers

Source: British Transport Police/Office for Road and Rail

Noise complaints throughout the pandemic have also been on the rise. Complaints in London increased by nearly 50 per cent during the first lockdown in spring 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. But confusingly, noise levels actually decreased. Researchers at UCL found this spike in complaints was not caused by an increase in loud parties, but rising intolerance to noise in general. “We knew there was this decrease in noise levels and we were expecting to see a corresponding decrease in complaints, but instead we saw this marked increase,” said Andrew Mitchell, a researcher on the project. “That was pretty surprising to have the disconnect between noise and noise complaints.”

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What is behind this growing tension and spike in bad behaviour? “People’s mindsets coming out of lockdown and back to socialising could be having an impact on behaviour,” says Dougal Sutherland, a clinical psychologist at Victoria University in New Zealand. “For some, being in social isolation from others for a lengthy period may have led to a polarising of our views and beliefs due to being in our own echo chambers for so long.

“The result could be a polarisation of views and less tolerance of others. What might have been an argument or debate in pre-Covid times may become much more heated with the potential to spill over into aggression.”

The perceived threat of coming into close contact with other members of the public could also be changing our relationship with strangers, according to Sutherland. “A key factor in this could be the level of contamination from others that an individual perceives. For example, if someone is highly anxious and alert coming out of a lockdown, they are likely to be very sensitive to things that they see as a threat to them, such as someone coming too close and not keeping a physical distance.”

For those in public-facing jobs, the change in the national mood is clear. “Recently the way people interact with each other has totally taken any joy out of hospitality,” says Alice. Since her North Yorkshire restaurant reopened in May, she has noticed a significant rise in the number of hostile customers. “At first everyone was totally gracious that we’d reopened and everyone was so lovely, saying they’d missed us. That lasted a couple of weeks,” she says. “Now people totally patronise us if we ask them to wear masks. I’ve been told to f*** off, been called stupid and thick because I’ve asked them to stay at their table.”

“Honestly it’s just small things every day. We’ve been doing this for months now,” adds Sam, “It slowly breaks you down.”

*Name has been changed.

[see also: Boris Johnson needs to be honest: “living with Covid” does not mean normality]