Borders between most EU states, closed for some months because of the Corona crisis, become more porous this morning. Travel is not yet enthusiastically encouraged, but holidaymakers who adhere to local Covid-19 restrictions may gently filter through. What will tentative first visitors find in Amsterdam?
The Netherlands is now in its second phase of lockdown ease. Restaurants and café terraces have re-opened. Schools are back. Museums and theatres are welcoming visitors, and shopping is no longer a nervous dash to stock up on essentials.
But Amsterdammers emerge blinking from lockdown to a different world from the one they shut their doors on three months ago. “It’s life as unusual,” a friend remarked.
Social-distancing regulations – in the Netherlands 1.5 metres – remain in force. Unlike in the UK, Dutch shops were allowed to remain open during lockdown, though many, especially those with an established online presence, chose to close. They are now re-opening, as shopping as a leisure activity makes a cautious comeback. Street markets, which have been restricted to stalls selling food, plants and flowers (this is Holland after all), may now extend to other items as well, though with fewer stalls so as to facilitate social distancing. The Amsterdam Flea Market is back in business.
The fact that shops were allowed to remain open during lockdown means retailers have already had some time to adapt to a new way of doing things. Dutch shoppers are already well used to Perspex screens at counters and checkouts, disinfectant at the door, distancing markers on the floor, and a restriction on numbers.
In this city of small speciality shops, that often means only three customers at a time. It’s hard to enjoy a leisurely browse when you can see a well-spaced queue of fellow customers waiting outside – so although the mood has changed, there’s still a degree of functionality to shopping.
Cafés and restaurants, by contrast, have a more easy-going atmosphere. Amsterdam city council has allowed them to extend terraces further across pavements and into squares. In good weather, terraces appear as cheerfully busy as before, despite social distancing. Greater space between tables, if anything, makes terraces more pleasant. Indoors, numbers are more restricted and tables available only by reservation. Many restaurants reported being booked out the moment lines reopened.
Most enjoyable of all is a visit to a post-lockdown museum. Numbers are severely restricted, and you need to pre-book a timeslot. This may be inconvenient, but it means that even for blockbuster exhibitions you no longer have to jostle to see the paintings. Now is the time to visit previously thronging museums such as the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum.
Whether operating under such restrictions is economically viable remains a moot point. Whereas the numbers allowed in to museums are tailored according to size, theatres may currently admit only 30 people. That goes for the smallest studio and the largest concert hall, and is hardly a workable solution for somewhere like the 2,000-seater Concertgebouw. Across the board, shops are offering large discounts in an attempt to lure customers out of hiding. The hospitality industry has been hard hit by lockdown, and if tourists don’t immediately return the struggle for many will continue. Before lockdown, tourism accounted for a 4.5% share of the Dutch economy, substantially more so for Amsterdam, where tourism (according to what method of calculation you choose) added between €3 billion and €10 billion annually to local coffers. Economic recovery is not going to be easy.
Meanwhile, Amsterdammers are reclaiming their relatively empty city, though there seems to be a divide between the nervy and the heedless: the former still wary of following their old pursuits, the latter reckless about restrictions. It is becoming increasingly difficult, despite all the measures in place, to keep to social distancing in public places, as a perhaps premature post-Covid euphoria takes grip and many people simply don’t bother with the basic rules.
Like the ominous deep chords in the soundtrack of a horror movie, warning signs are appearing. The key R number – the indicator of how many people an infected person passes the disease on to – last week crept back up past the critical value of 1. For the time being, Amsterdam bears the label: ‘Enjoy, but treat with caution’.
How to enjoy Amsterdam after lockdown
Stay at Sweets Hotel: individual bridge-houses on bridges all over town. You’re completely on your own, and check-in is electronic.
Dine at Mediamatic ETEN, where you can book a Serre Séparée – a waterside table in its own glasshouse, beside the old Eastern Docks.
Book for one of the larger museums at 9.45 am on a weekday morning. Not only are numbers restricted, but – for the moment – some museums don’t even make their quota around that time.
Have a drink at Café De Jaren. It has two large terraces with views across the water, and a large, airy interior.
Make sure your phone is equipped with a QR reader. Many cafés have a QR code at the table via which you call up the menu and order remotely.