King St, Newtown (Image: Wikimedia)

On Friday night, the first signs of buzz are returning to King St, Newtown. Since March, one of Sydney’s busiest strips has been a ghostly shadow of its normally bustling, chaotic self, the weekend punters replaced by a cavalry of delivery riders. 

But this weekend, things are looking better. Nature is healing. There’s a sense King St is starting to retain its lost energy, starting to feel almost busy. More people are picking up their own food. There are fewer cops around (and fewer people being fined). The inexplicable but ubiquitous queue outside the Italian Bowl has returned — for takeaway only.

Blink and you might miss the signs of the protracted crisis we’re still living through — the shuttered bars, the lack of obnoxious drunks, the hollowed-out restaurants that will never see the other side. 

On Sunday, a glorious, bright autumnal morning, Sydneysiders wake up to the news that in less than a week, restrictions will be easing. We’ll be able to have five visitors, not two, in our homes. Cafes and restaurants can open their doors for up to 10 people. It’s just the first step on a three stage road to normal that, with luck, could see us back at the pub by July.

But at Broadway Shopping Centre this weekend, it seems like normal has already arrived. After weeks in virtual lockdown, even the slightest crowd feels excessively large, a little bit foreign, and somewhat terrifying. There seem to be people everywhere, spilling out of Kmart, milling around the entrances, buying discounted sneakers they might soon be able to wear out again. People seem altogether more relaxed, fewer sideways glances, no frantic queues or empty pasta shelves.

Like King St on Friday, the signs of pandemic are subtle — visors at the supermarket check-out, a Coles employee counting shoppers as they enter, a fenced-off food court, lights off in the boutiques.

On Twitter, the presence of people in shopping centres, going about their lives as normal, is met with fear, anxiety, and a dose of self-righteous scolding. But with new cases in the single digits in most states all week, and with the prime minister unveiling his recovery plan on Friday, can anyone blame people for trying to reclaim some semblance of their old lives?

Of course, there’s reason to still be worried. In Singapore, a lethal second wave took place among migrant workers just when things seemed under control. South Korea shut its nightclubs again after a partygoer created a spike in new cases. 

All of this just adds to a sense of confusion reminiscent of the earliest days of lockdown. This morning, chief medial officer Brendan Murphy told Australians to stop congregating at shopping malls, just days after he and the prime minister announced we were ready to begin the road out of lockdown. Go shopping, just don’t go shopping too much. Go back to normal, just not too normal.

This time, the uncertainty is probably less the fault of our politicians and health officials — Morrison, Murphy and the premiers went to great lengths to tell us that different states would open at different rates — and more because of the horrific randomness of the virus itself. There’s a sense that in avoiding the carnage in Europe and America, we’ve been exceedingly, unfairly lucky.

In a matter of days, all our hard work could come undone, like in Singapore. Or, like Austria, our slow reopening could come without a new spike in cases.

But while fear is unsurprising when faced with COVID-19’s arbitrary deadliness, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic.

For me, this weekend was another sign of how, in just two months, lifelong habits have been rewired. Even as the streets filled up, I never felt crowded, or had people breathing down my neck. People still swerve to avoid each other. Masks remain common. And the suspicion, the impulse to see strangers as vectors of a deadly disease, is still there. It might never go away.

Despite all the scolding and the warnings, most people out and about are doing the right thing. With luck, the pandemic will shatter once and for all the absurd mythology of Australia as a land of lawless larrikins. COVID-19 proves we’re largely a rule-abiding nation of cops. And sometimes, like during a deadly pandemic, that works to our advantage.

It’s meant people have been willing to trust health experts. It means, aside from the smattering of goofy conspiracy theorists protesting outside Victorian Parliament, and a handful of attention-seeking pundits, we’ve avoided turning the lockdowns into a full-blown culture war. 

But there’s also something hopeful, even slightly joyous. about seeing more people leaving home. For the last two months, “normal” has felt like a distant star. But this weekend, as Newtown slowly came back to life, normal began to feel a lot closer.

Do you plan on going out more now the lockdown is beginning to ease? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s new Your Say section.