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New behavior in a social distancing society

Room by Annemarie de Wildt – curator, Amsterdam Museum

The measures taken to restrict the spread of the coronavirus are resulting in all kinds of adjustments to how people act, from standing in queues to keeping a safe distance when meeting others. The temporary road signs used for directing traffic on a normal King’s Day are now being used for providing government information. “Keep 1.5 meters apart. Fine = 399 euros. Stay at home.” Up to April 21, the police in Amsterdam had issued a total of 296 fines for breaches of the coronavirus rules. Through street billboards and sidewalk texts, we are being urged not to give up and to stay strong.
The new form of behavior is being enforced through instructions that make up part of the public space. As early as mid-March, 1.5-meter demarcations were appearing in supermarkets and coffeeshops, together with all kinds of improvized signs calling for social distancing. This was followed some time later by plastic screens for protecting cashiers and customers from each other. There are designers who have responded to this, such as Björn van den Broek. He designed a bench for keeping people 1.5 meters apart, while fashion designer Giorgio Toppin came up with a 1.5-meter bag.

On the streets of Amsterdam, however, it is mostly do-it-yourself designs that predominate. Informal street language with a temporary feel. Using walking routes and separate entrances and exits, businesses are creating the space that enables them to continue operating. Others are using red and white tape to show that they really are closed, although some local residents, bringing their own drinks, have reclaimed the space for themselves.

It can lead to all kinds of excitements – suddenly, you find yourself in a supermarket dancing the rumba or salsa with the obligatory trolley, as Ava MacPherson describes in her contribution.
Ignoring social distancing can also lead to irritation, such as when sweating cyclists or joggers brush past you. The ‘intelligent lockdown’ in the Netherlands means that everyone has to decide for themselves how they behave in public spaces. To go shopping or not? To wear a facemask or not? To wear gloves or not?

Differences in the available space translate into inequality. For people in Amsterdam with large houses and gardens, lockdown life is easier than for those in small apartments without their own outdoor space. The most poignant are the lines on the floor of the shelter for undocumented migrants. ‘We can’t protect ourselves’ from the Homeless Quarantine series shows how homeless refugees are experiencing the coronavirus crisis. Equally distressing and just as invisible is the domestic violence that has increased as a result of people being forced to stay at home. Contact information is written on the sidewalk, but how can you call if you are never alone?


Het huis van Amsterdam met dank aan: Gemeente Amsterdam West Soundtrackcity