Lockdown day one in the Helderberg

The all but deserted Somerset West Main Road, a SAPS sector policing vehicle approaching in the distance.

It is the silence that awakens me. It is almost eerie in its completeness. The white noise of our urban environment, is no more.

For the very first time in my life, I am hearing the silence. Not the silence of the countryside, which has its own unique white noise – a rustle of leaves here, a bird song there – but the complete silence of a conurbation which has literally come to a standstill.

It is day one of national lockdown, Friday March 27, and it is as if our society is in hibernation.

Keen to see how the community is dealing with the tough conditions of lockdown, I venture forth.

Aside from the tangible silence, what strikes me on the way to the car, is the complete absence of life on the roads of our complex. No people. No pets. Nothing. Incredibly, I don’t even see or hear any birds, as if they too are subdued by what has befallen us.

But once I drive out into Somerset West, I begin to see signs of life. The CBD is disconcertingly busy, akin to a Saturday afternoon. Although all but food stores, garages and chemists are closed, a surprising number of people are going about their business, in many instances paying little attention to social distancing.

Retail stores seem to exercise differing standards of the strict regulations published by government, intended to contain the spread of Covid-19. In one instance, three branches of the same retail chain, deal with matters quite differently. One store makes no effort to implement social distancing or to limit the number of people in-store, and the closing off of non-essential items, the sale of which are prohibited under lockdown, is haphazard and confusing.

Asked about the company’s policy in regard to the lockdown regulations, I’m told to “speak to the regional manager” and I’m shown the number I must call. I make a note on my mobile, reluctant to accept the proffered slip of paper on which it is written. As I exit the store, I reflect on my reaction, and realise just how fearful I have become of being infected. I dial the number given, ask for the regional manager by name, and after waiting for eight minutes for him to pick up, I terminate the call.

The second store makes more of an attempt in the loose fresh fruit and vegetable section, but only just, displaying just a single sign which reads: “Dear customers, please ensure that you wash all your fruit and vegetables before cooking or consuming.”

The store also has up a number of signs explicitly encouraging social distancing, but its beaconing off of prohibited items is confusing and inconsistent. In contradiction of the appeal by government to limit purchases of high-demand items to four, it inexplicably raises the limit to six per customer.

But the third store of the same group, although it does not limit the number of customers in-store (it is the largest of the three), hits the sweet spot, in all three other areas.

At my next port of call I’m welcomed into the store manager’s office for what turns out to be a deeply discomfiting experience. The office is tiny, no more than three metres by three metres, and three friendly, engaging women, are seated at their desks. With four us now in the room, the notion of social distancing is utterly voided.

After asking for the head office number which I’m inevitably told I must call with my questions, I’m asked if they may photocopy my media card. The contortions to avoid physical contact while the copying process happens, border on the comical. I beat a hasty retreat, and breath deeply again, only once I am well out into the fresh air.

My visit to Lion’s Square Spar in the main road, is a pleasant surprise. Here, you enter through one door, and exit through an opposite door. At the entrance, gloved and masked employees gently but firmly prevail upon me to accept a dollop of hand sanitiser.

Upon entering the store I encounter Derick Grobler, the manager, gloved and masked, and all staff are similarly decked out with protective gear. As they move about, they maintain the requisite social distancing between each other and customers.

I engage with Derick, and he is only to happy to answer my questions. Yes, all staff are issued with personal protective equipment, and they have all been fully briefed on social distancing requirements, hand washing method and frequency, not touching your face, and so forth. Customer numbers are limited to 15 in-store, and this is strictly policed, and social distancing cues are affixed to the floor at the tills as well.

In response to my request to take a photograph, Derick suggests I ask co-owner Janine Fourie, who, also gloved and masked, greets me with a smile and a “Yes”.

She explains the other initiative they have introduced. “We have a WhatsApp ordering system. You WhatsApp us your order, we pack it, and let you know its ready. You come and collect it here (pointing at a window looking out onto the parking lot), collect your order and pay either with SnapScan or a contactless card. We know that some people are fearful of coming into a store, so we thought this would make it easier for them.”

I engage with Michelle Phillips, who is packing fresh fruit and veggies onto the shelves, and she explains the measures she and her colleagues have been schooled in to cope with the lockdown regulations.

Somerset West epidemiologist, Dr Jo Barnes, puts the issue of gloves and mask into perspective. “Gloves,” says Dr Jo, “have precisely the same washing requirements as do bare hands. So, you must either replace them frequently, or wash them as thoroughly and frequently as you would your hands.

“A mask must be fit for purpose, and it must also fit properly. A mask cannot protect the wearer from infection, but what it can do, is reduce the likelihood of infecting others, if the wearer is infected.” Which, I imagine, for customers in a retail environment, must afford some measure of psychological reassurance.

“But what a mask also does for the wearer,” says Dr Jo, “is remind them to not touch their own face, a critical measure in avoiding infection.”

Heading back down Main Road, I pass a myriad of darkened stores, which stare blankly at me, like so many sightless eyes, as I pass, and the thought strikes me that, with business largely in hibernation, electricity demand must be at an all-time low. Perhaps we’ll have no load-shedding to interrupt our obsessive DStv, Showmax, Amazon Prime, Hulu, or Netflix binge-watching, after all.

I stop and step into the centre of Main Road, to take a photograph of the almost empty street, and espy a SAPS sector policing patrol vehicle. I realise this is the third time I’ve seen this same vehicle, and despite me catching the eye of the driver, I remain unchallenged, as if it is perfectly fine for a citizen to be standing in the middle of the road taking photographs, while the country is in lockdown.

Somerset Mall is all but deserted, only Pick * Pay and Woolworths open for business, the rest shuttered and dark, and access to any other than these two stores, sealed off, save for Dischem Pharmacy at the far end of the mall.

Neither is particularly busy, and both are explicit in their beaconing off on no-go merchandise, and social distancing prompts and cues. If we were to ever implement 24-hour shopping here, I imagine this is what it would be like to shop at 2am.

Down to the beach, and I traverse a virtually deserted Beach Road, passing a single pedestrian.

I walk to the promenade to take a photograph, breathing deeply of the salt-tinged, and, no doubt, clean air. Gazing towards Gordon’s Bay, the deserted beach reminds me of the scene from the original Planet of the Apes, in which Charlton Heston’s character, George Taylor, encounters the almost completely buried Statue of Liberty, and
he realises he is not on a distant planet ruled by apes, but back on a dystopian earth, centuries in the future.

At least here the message to stay at home, seems to have gotten through. A single car approaches, and incongruously, pulls into the parking bay ahead of me. The driver alights and takes shopping bags from the boot. With a suspicious side-glance, he enters what must be his home.

The Strand Pavilion is dark, deserted, as is the municipal swimming pool, and the only stores open, are the Spar and the OK Minimark, the latter busy sorting a stock of goods, perhaps just delivered, in the parking area.

Driving up Main Road, back towards Somerset West, I am struck by how quiet it is, until I get closer to the N2, where, inexplicably, I encounter far more strollers than ought to be out and about, but two open food stores explain why.

By now hungry and thirsty, I return home, where I encounter my neighbour who runs a food store in Stellenbosch.

He has just retuned from work, and standing the requisite metre-and-a-half apart, we exchange notes. He recounts his experience driving to Stellenbosch this morning. Opposite Cavali estate on the R44, he encounters a roadblock, manned by a joint contingent of SAPS and SANDF members, all armed to the teeth, and clad in personal protective equipment.

He is courteously asked why he is abroad, and after explaining, is requested to present his movement permit and his ID, which are both inspected from the appropriate distance, before he is, equally courteously, waved on his way.

Perhaps I shall venture out to run the gauntlet of that roadblock tomorrow.

Or the next day. Perhaps.