“Having this mask all the time was claustrophobic and stressful, especially since it’s a hot and humid place in the summer. Wearing a 40 degree heat face mask when sweating is extremely unpleasant. “
A few weeks ago, Fabian Picardo, the chief minister of the small British overseas territory of Gibraltar, announced that with an extremely advanced vaccination program, for the first time in nine months, there was no no active cases of COVID-19 among Gibraltar’s resident population – as continues to be the case – and that some of the more stringent public health measures, such as wearing masks outdoors, could finally be lifted.
A total of 85% of the population of the world’s leading Gibraltar is now vaccinated against COVID-19, along with all of its 15,000 foreign workers.
Only Israel, with around 60% of its population vaccinated, comes close to this figure.
It remains to be seen how quickly two of Gibraltar’s main industries, tourism and retail, can return to their pre-pandemic levels.
Cruise ships still couldn’t visit the territory, which has a population of around 34,000, and, when Al Jazeera visited last week, there was only a thin stream of pedestrians and cars crossing the Gibraltar’s only land border, with the Spanish town of La Línea.
While its duty-free shops may remain empty, masks are still mandatory in indoor public spaces, and you should still complete a COVID-19 contact form in restaurants.
But that said, last week even heavy rain showers could not stop people from rushing to the terraces of bars and cafes.
Locals enjoyed the coffees or beers, with pubs again being allowed to open until late hours.
Gibraltar looks like a microcosm of what post-pandemic daily life further afield in Europe could one day become again.
“I don’t know how much of an example we are, because it’s a very small, tight-knit community,” Ivan Perez, director of the consulting firm TAG, an auditing firm, told Al Jazeera in sipping a coffee in the central square of the Casemates.
“But in terms of giving reassurance to the rest of the world, we agree to be guinea pigs for that.
“Likewise, if things had gone badly here, and we would now have other variations [of the virus] affecting us, at least people further afield would be aware of it. And as a very small population, we would be easier to test. “
After emerging from the first wave of the pandemic relatively unscathed, almost all of the 94 COVID-19-related deaths in Gibraltar, along with the bulk of more than 4,000 infections, occurred in early 2021.
Cases suddenly exploded, before dropping again in February and March and the second lockdown was lifted.
“Nearly 100 deaths in a small community like ours is a lot. If you didn’t know the deceased person directly, you would know their family, ”said Yoana, Perez’s wife, a product sales consultant.
She said the relaxed restrictions sounded strange, but above all were “a relief”.
“Where I work, indoors, you still have to wear your mask all the time. Sometimes I go home with my mask still on and I have to remember that it is no longer necessary.
“At the same time, people walk into the store without a mask and I have to remind them that it is still necessary inside.”
When asked if she sees Gibraltar as an example to follow, Health Minister Samantha Sacramento told Al Jazeera: “One roadmap would be one way of describing it, another would be a glimmer of light. hope on how things can be on the other side of it all.
“I would say we are an example of how well things can work out when a people come together to work together for a common goal.”
However, a local health expert has warned against viewing Gibraltar as a testing ground.
“Gibraltar is a very small community, with very stable social ties, everyone knows who their neighbors are.
“It’s far too controlled an environment to calculate risk levels to guide what other places might do,” José Hernández, social health policy specialist and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Cordoba, in the adjacent Spanish region of Andalusia.
“What is true is that Gibraltar is now reaping the benefits of its people by following social norms and foreclosure restrictions, largely out of a sense of civic duty, rather than seeing them as a tax, which has was much more the case in Spain.
“He’s a great example to follow.”
In Spain, the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on people and businesses, even though with rising vaccination rates and falling deaths, there is a sense of cautious optimism.
Calvente, who crosses the border every day from his home in La Línea, said: “In Spain things are progressing much more slowly and it could take years to reach levels of vaccination and public safety similar to Gibraltar.
“If you compare a neighboring Andalusian town with roughly the same population, they are only a fraction of the vaccination rates. Here, they maximized their resources and they acted quickly. “
But as the conversational buzz of cafe tables increases, the feeling of a place emerging from pandemic hibernation is inevitable.
“People have been going through very difficult times everywhere and Gibraltar is no exception,” said Ivan Perez.
“We just can’t wait to hang out with our friends and family and just have coffee like we have now. It’s been a long time since. “