Published: 06:00, 04 August 2021
| Updated: 16:02, 04 August 2021
Two weeks after Covid restrictions were relaxed, the wearing of masks remains a highly divisive issue.
Whilst some people in Kent were keen to discard their face coverings at the earliest opportunity, many are continuing to wear masks both indoors and out.
Tensions came to a head this week when a shopkeeper released a shocking video of a customer abusing him when he insisted on masks being worn inside his store.
We sent our team of reporters out to some of the county's busiest shopping centres to find out what’s happening where you live - here’s what we found.
Not all people in the County Town are still wearing face masks
Our reporter counted 250 people entering and exiting The Mall on Monday lunchtime, excluding children. Of that total fewer than half - 105 - were wearing masks.
However, several were carrying face coverings so may have put them on when they stepped inside a shop.
Of 50 people surveyed entering and exiting Marks and Spencer in Week Street, 22 were wearing masks excluding children.
Outside, we counted 30 people wearing masks in the street, mainly older people. Many people were still wearing sunflower lanyards, which are often used to represent the fact they have a medical exemption.
Shopper Susan Connor said: "When I go into shops I wear a mask but when I'm outside I don't."
Another, Colin Hill, said: "I still wear my mask when I have to, I think people should because it's not only you you're looking after, it's other people.
"It's better for the whole community and people are selfish if they say they don't want to wear a mask inside, in my opinion.”
The vast majority of people in the High Street enjoyed going mask-free in the open air. In stores, however, the majority of people still appeared to be wearing masks, although some groups of younger people chose not to do so inside Primark, Tesco and Boots.
Sophie Ebbs, sales assistant at Wrapped! a card and gift shop in Burgate, said two weeks on from the lifting of social restrictions, "most people" are still wearing face coverings in the store.
"I was quite surprised," she said. "I wasn't sure if it would just drop off completely, but predominantly people are, which is nice to see.
"I've kept mine on just to be respectful, because you don't know what people's circumstances are when they come in the shop."
She said the majority of people not wearing masks appear to be in the younger age range.
"Older people generally keep them on and people in their 30s up, but people who are younger tend to not wear them," she said.
Di Donnelly, operations manager at The Chinashop in Canterbury agreed that "most people" were still wearing masks while out and about in shops.
Anne Dodge, who was out shopping in Canterbury with friend Ian Young said: "I'm wearing a mask because I still think it's necessary. I think it's very likely that we'll have another wave, and I don't agree with all the restrictions being lifted."
Asked if she thinks the proportion of people wearing masks has changed since July 19, she said: "I think it's gone up since two weeks ago, but in enclosed places most people are still weathering them - especially in the shops."
In Chatham, in just 30 minutes at the High Street entrance to the Pentagon Shopping Centre, a total of 343 people entered the venue. Some 138 were wearing masks (40.2%) with 194 not (55.5%) and there were 11 (3.2%) doing the ‘half-and-half’ chin masks.
The majority of those who were not wearing masks were younger people, children and teenagers, but there was a mixture generally across the board.
Predominantly it was mostly women wearing masks and older people.
Signs are up at the entrances to the shopping centre at the bus station and High Street ends and hand sanitiser placed by the doors.
The signs say: "Face coverings recommended. During busy times, we recommend all shoppers continue to wear face coverings in the centre in order to protect fellow shoppers."
Inside the shopping centre, there's a one way system still in place on the floor which generally is observed by most but is certainly not a hard and fast rule any more.
Around one in three shoppers entering Thamesgate Shopping Centre in Gravesend High Street chose to wear a face mask whilst the majority opted not to wear a face covering.
In total our reporter counted 276 shoppers, 188 decided not to wear a face mask while just 88 people did so.
Alison Head, 48, and her son Cody, nine, both elected to wear face coverings for their trip inside the shopping centre.
She said: "I think it should be mandatory still because it is still out there.
"I will take it off outside but where it is crowded I won't take it off."
The mum from Greenhithe believes the number of people choosing to wear face coverings inside shops has gone down dramatically.
She added: "People come and go as they please. A lot less people are wearing them now than two weeks ago."
Northfleet resident Anne Alushi says she has not come across any shop owners requesting masks be worn in-store but she wears a covering out of choice.
The 72-year-old said: "I'm trying to protect myself. I think people are just forgetting about it now because they have said the rates are going down."
Our reporter visited Morrisons in Cheriton Road and found the vast majority of shoppers masked-up, with just one in 10 people browsing the aisles going without a face-covering.
Although many of those covered up were of an age likely to be double-jabbed, they were still prepared to take the measure to protect themselves and others.
In the town centre the picture was more mixed.
Some stores, such as Waterstones and TK Maxx, still have visible signs ordering or advising mask-wearing.
However others, such as Primark, appear to have removed all material on masks. In Asda, Wilko and Primark the split seemed roughly even, between those covering up and those going without.
The owner of Roger's Menswear in William Street said most customers are wearing masks when they go into his shop, but added he is allowing people to make up their own mind if they wear one inside his store.
Tony Symons added: "I give people the option when they come in. Most people are coming in with a mask on.
"I think the smaller independent stores in smaller towns could end up faring better than those in the bigger towns.
"This is because I think people still feel more comfortable staying in their locality, rather than going to crowded places.
"Since non-essential stores were allowed to reopen, we had a slow start and it's picked up and back to doing the figures we were doing in 2019.
"It's a great relief because most of us had no idea what was going to happen."
Along Mortimer Street, Herne Bay's main shopping route, a smattering of people were out browsing the stores.
The majority of residents were either wearing masks or could be seen carrying the coverings with them, before sticking them on as they entered retailers.
Peter Jones, 70, had been out shopping in town. He said: "I have had two jabs and I still wear my mask all the time I go into shops. I feel 100% safer with it on."
Pensioners John and Irene Slade, from Herne Bay, were also out shopping in Mortimer Street on Monday morning.
John Slade said: "We're both high risk, so we're going to continue wearing our masks until it's safe. We still feel a bit scared.
"I just think it's a dangerous time at the moment.
"We'll still wear them everywhere, until we get home. I think others should wear masks in shops because it puts everyone's lives at risk."
Shopkeepers say almost everyone has been continuing to wear face coverings.
In many of the town's independent shops, space is limited and to many, it is deemed "common courtesy" to carry on as we have done for the past 18 months.
Kim Foster, managing director at cookshop and hardware store, Copperfields, said: "We've left all our screens up, still have our social distancing markers and still wear masks.
"Nothing's really changed - 95% of people are still wearing them.
"We still control the numbers in our shop and people are happy we're doing that.
"People have taken on their own responsibility and are still wearing masks. We've not had any issues whatsoever.
"I think up in London there are a lot of places where people aren't wearing masks where they should be, but there's none of that here.
Bev Newton, from Memories & Moonbeams also in Whitstable, continues to ask customers to wear face coverings in her store.
"We still want people to wear them here," she said. "Cases are still going up and down, there's no stability yet.
"To me, it's courtesy really to wear a mask as we don't yet know where we're at.
"We're protecting the shoppers, and they are protecting us.
“There's not been any trouble, aside from one woman who said wearing a mask was poisoning her - but I asked her to leave the shop."
Sittingbourne and Sheppey
In Sittingbourne and in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey it was clear on Monday things were a bit different for people out in the town.
Many people seemed very relaxed unlike two weeks ago when the majority of people were still donning masks in the high streets.
At Tesco in Sheerness over a 20 minute period 376 people went in the shop of all ages, genders and races, with 232 opting to wear masks and 144 not.
One shopper, Peggy Amos, 74, wasn’t surprised.
The retired Minster resident said: “Supermarkets have always been seen as a hot spot.
"I guess because they’re so confined and people are touching everything, so it’s not shocking to see so many masks.
"It would be nice to see more of them but people can make their own choices.
"I’ve always worn one and I’m going to continue until I feel completely safe.
"We’ve had to isolate, so what’s the point in taking a risk even if it is small?”
Just a few hundred metres away, in Sheerness High Street, masks weren’t a concern for many people as the majority ditched them in the hot and sunny weather.
A walk down the High Street to the clock tower saw our reporter walk past 72 people, with 55 choosing not to wear masks and only 17 wearing them.
The majority of people who had opted for them had either just left a shop or had it lowered below their mouth and onto their neck.
46-year-old Jason Rickman, from Upchurch, said: “I was actually in town on freedom day and saw how many were wearing masks but it’s completely different now.
"There’s barely anyone wearing a mask except if they’re heading into a shop, but when they’re outside in the fresh air they’re taking it off.
"I think people are listening to the advice to be careful in shops etc and then feel safer taking it off outside.”
In Sittingbourne High Street it was more of a mixed batch, as strolling down the town centre we saw 36 people with masks and 84 without.
In the town’s Forum Shopping Centre the numbers were a bit closer as people became more cautious. Out of 20 people in the centre, 13 wore masks, and seven chose not to.
The overall theme seemed to be to wear masks in spaces which are naturally tighter in space or where you’re forced closer to a person.
Of 18 people waiting outside Sittingbourne Railway Station at the bus stop in a tight space, 12 opted to wear masks and six chose not to.
Retired Alan Sheriff, 81, stayed well away from any queues until he needed to get on.
Wearing his homemade mask he said: “As an older gentleman I still get a tad nervous being around a lot of people, but I’ve started to come out of myself and my shell.
"I’ll wear the mask for a while I think, especially as I get public transport a lot. The last thing you’ll see me do is squish together somewhere just to get on first.
"I’m happy, if not surprised, people are wearing masks as I honestly thought others would ditch them completely when the rules were dropped.”
Most shoppers in Tunbridge Wells chose to still wear masks, and after observing the people who shop there, it's clear face coverings are still important to them.
Most people in Tunbridge Wells have chosen to still wear masks
Our reporter arrived just before 10am and found a little spot outside the Royal Victoria Place Shopping Centre to observe how many people were still adopting the rules we all became so used to over the past 18 months.
In a 10 minute period, she saw a total of 91 people walk in and out of the main entrance opposite Metro Bank.
Out of them, 29 were not wearing masks, showing the majority of people still feel comfortable wearing them when entering an inside public space.
And as always, there were plenty of people choosing to wear their masks around their chins, under their noses and swinging from their wrists ready to deploy them into the correct position if challenged by a store which still recommends wearing them.
As for the centre itself, there is no longer an official one way system in place and all that is left of social distance stickers are the marks they left behind on the white tiled floor.
But boards encouraging shoppers to keep left and wear face coverings in crowded places are still prominent along with strategically-placed sanitiser dispensers for those wishing to be a bit more cautious.
While mask wearing appeared to be common, one thing our reporter noticed was that not one person who entered through the front entrance used the hand sanitiser about 20 steps from the door on the left hand side.
Moving on to Boots, again setting her timer for 10 minutes, she observed 33 people walking in and out of the high street shop. Out of those, only seven went in maskless and two came out rubbing their hands together with disinfecting gel.
Then she went to Costa. Of the 15 people who visited to get their caffeine fix from 10.30am to 10.40am, only five chose not to wear masks.
Last but not least, people heading into Nationwide to get the jobs on their banking to do list ticked off for the rest of the week.
There was a much smaller footfall with only 18 people going in and out during a 10 minute interval. Out of those 18, only two were not wearing masks.
This brings the total of people she observed during morning to 157. Out of these, only 27% were comfortable without their faces covered, showing it might be a while before we return to the maskless society we once were in Tunbridge Wells.
Mask wearing has fallen over the last week or so in Ashford, but a fair portion of shoppers are still erring on the side of caution.
The masks seem to come in waves, with wearers grouping together – families, friends, and couples mostly – but on average around four in every 10 people will be wearing some kind of face covering inside Park Mall shopping centre.
This drops when you move outside – as would be expected – but still around 20% of people in the High Street, many of them elderly, are still wearing masks.
A special mention must go to one elderly shopper who was wearing both a mask and a visor as she wandered down the High Street.
In sunny Faversham on Tuesday, the market town was bustling with shoppers with barely anyone wearing a mask.
It was a far cry from the earlier days of the pandemic with life seemingly back to normal with little in the way of social distancing as people brushed past each other and sat closely at outdoor cafes.
Some had their masks around their necks for ease of access when entering shops, which many still appeared to be doing.
The shoppers we spoke to said they usually wore them in shops "to feel safer" and in respect of others.
Antiques shop owner Nigel Stingemore said: "I'm surprised by the number of people wearing masks at all since the rules were relaxed.
"Most people tend to still do when they come into my shop which is quite small and I have a notice politely asking them to do so."
In stores like Boots and WH Smith mostly pulled their masks up when entering.
But out on the street everyone was largely mask free.
People in Margate talk about wearing masks
Mum of two Sarah Glasgow said: "I don't tend to wear one now because my view is that if you're going to get it, you're going to get it.
"I don't usually wear a mask in shops anymore. But it's each to their own if people feel more comfortable wearing them."
Gary Sulaj who runs Gary's Pie Shop says he feels comfortable without one himself but some of his customers are older and continue to wear them.
"I don't require people to wear a mask, it's their choice. From what I see out and about in the town, there's far few people wearing them.”
One charity shop manager told KentOnline that she and her staff still had masks to slip on when facing customers and they were politely asking customers to do the same, but added: "It's their choice"