Conflicted and terrified | Toy retail and gaming events approach ‘Freedom Day’ with caution and confusion

With Government plans full steam ahead to lift all Covid restrictions on July 19th, despite evidence of rising cases, the discordantly named Freedom Day has left toy and game communities at odds with the change in approach to health and safety this summer.

This week has seen major events in the board gaming space revise their own Covid-19 measures, making masks mandatory for visitors and exhibitors, as well as proof of vaccination or negative Covid tests before permitting entry.

It kicked off with confirmation from Germany’s Essen Spiel that stringent measures will be in place when the event goes ahead in October this year, swiftly followed by an issuance of updated measures from the UK’s own UK Games Expo that today confirms all visitors will be required to wear face masks and provide proof of Covid vaccination or a negative Covid test.

It’s a u-turn on an earlier position that the board game convention took this month, when it announced that the event – taking place from July 30th to August 1st in Birmingham’s NEC – would be dropping all requirements not legally mandated by Public Health England. Its reversal appears to be in response to backlash from the gaming community who expressed concern over the stance in light of evidence of rising cases in the country.

In the latest from the Government itself, large indoor venues in England will be urged to check the Covid status of their customers on entry this summer, while the prevalence of the virus is high.

Speaking to MPs, health secretary, Sajid Javid confirmed the plans to lift almost all the remaining legal restrictions put in place during the pandemic on July 19, including those covering mask wearing and the size of social gatherings.

‘Freedom Day’ has however been met with mixed emotions, particularly from a retail sector that has bore the brunt of restrictions through various lockdowns over the past 18 months, with leading voices calling out the plans as ‘too much too soon.’ 

In fact, some retailers in the toy space have been left either conflicted over the best way to proceed with business come July 19th and beyond or feeling ‘terrified’ over the implications of ‘Freedom Day’.

Lee Bolastero, owner of Kids Stuff Wells, a member of the Toymaster buying group, is a leukemia patient in the demographic of people left extremely vulnerable to Covid-19. Since the on-set of the pandemic, his mother, who caught both Covid and long Covid,has been left with permanent liver damage. For the two of them, the lifting of all restrictions and regulations next week presents a “terrifying proposition” and one that they believe is “far too much, far too soon.”

“The problem is, people have no common sense as a default,” Bolastero tells ToyNews. “We have already had a few confrontations in the shop with people who become more relaxed around it all as we get closer to Freedom Day.

“But this really doesn’t feel like Freedom Day, it feels really close to home, and really scary.”

The toy shop owner is one of 750,000 in the country with a life threatening illness now left to navigate the lifting of almost all remaining restrictions. Still awaiting guidance from NHS England on his best approach, Bolastero has taken the decision to implement his own health and safety regulations in store.

“Given the information that we have about infection rates, I really would have wanted the government to draw a line and make it mandatory that masks be kept on in shops,” he says. 

“But as a result of that lack of awareness, we will be implementing our own measures by limiting numbers, continuing with the sanitisation points in store, and making masks mandatory for when people come in.”

A popular destination close to Glastonbury, Kids Stuff Wells would in pre-pandemic times, see weekend visitor numbers hit as many as 50 customers at a time. Those numbers have since been limited to eight, a measure that will continue to be put in place post July 19th.

“Yes, we may lose a few customers, but this is out shop, our policy, and if you don’t like it you can go elsewhere,” insists Bolastero. 

So far, the messaging that Kids Stuff Wells’ has issued around its approach has been met with support from local customers and other independent stores in the area.

“On our street, Queen Street, we are all independent businesses. There are no multi-nationals around here, and as a result we are all supporting each other and taking inspiration from each other. There is a large community of supporters around us that know our story and are ready to support us in this way.”

For others, however, the best action to adopt is less clear cut with government plans leaving them feeling conflicted in the face of the evidence of rising cases, particularly of the Delta variant.

Jennie Hogg, owner of Cachao Toys in London, tells ToyNews: “Removing the restrictions leaves us in a really difficult position, and it’s one that I will have to wait and see how it all goes with, and how I feel customers are responding to and using their own common sense.

“As a small business, the last thing you want to do is turn people away or restrict the numbers of people coming into your shop – it’s the opposite of what you learn at business school, isn’t it.”

A key concern for the independent toy shop owner is the potential for conflict that the situation presents. The British Retail Consortium has been vocal in its support for specific laws against abuse on shop staff, a problem that has increased since the pandemic and the imposition of restrictions and regulations.

“I am not very good at confronting people,” says Cachao Toys’ Hogg. “I think in terms of laws, it would be better to have the laws in place for face masks and sanitisation. All I can do now is make sure that I serve my customers while keeping a distance I feel safe at.

“I mean, as a small shop, you don’t get the crowds you get at big gatherings. It’s not like watching Covid Coming Home at Wembley… you kind of have to leave it to customers’ interpretation.

“I think for as long as I feel safe and I feel the environment is a safe one, I will see how it goes.”