GIBRALTAR — Maskless parents pick up smiling Cinderellas, Harry Potters and hedgehogs from schools that reopened after a two-month hiatus just in time for World Book Day's costume display. Following weeks under lockdown, a soccer team resumes training at the stadium. Coffee shops and pubs have finally raised their blinds, eager to welcome locals and eyeing the return of tourists.
There's an end-of-hibernation feeling in Gibraltar. The narrow British overseas territory stretching between Spain and the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea is emerging from a devastating virus surge. COVID-19 has killed 93 people, nearly all of them in January and February this year, and infected over 4,000 of its 33,000 residents.
But the compact, high-density geography that is blamed — together with new virus variants — for the surge of infections has also been key to Gibraltar's successful vaccination campaign, with word-of-mouth facilitating the rollout.
The recent easing of restrictions — what Gibraltar authorities have dubbed "Operation Freedom" — also owes much to the steady delivery of jabs from the U.K.
By the end of March, Gibraltar is on track to have completely vaccinated all residents over 16 and its vast imported workforce, Health Minister Samantha Sacramento told The Associated Press. That's over 40,000 people. Only 3.5% have so far rejected the vaccine.
Schoolchildren walk by a COVID-19 informative banner in Gibraltar, Thursday, March 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
But Gibraltar's struggle to regain normality is only just starting. It still faces the many challenges of reopening in a globalized world with unequal access to vaccines and new virus variants emerging. Sacramento has been working on contingency plans, including topping up vaccinations with a booster.
"Being vaccinated is absolutely no carte blanche to then behave without any restrictions. But then, we also have to go back to being a little bit more human, being able to breathe fresh air," the minister said in an office atop the local hospital.
"It's 'Operation Freedom,' but with caution," she added.
Finding that balance can be tricky for a territory linked to both Spain and the U.K. As a British territory, Gibraltar has received five vaccine consignments from London, mostly the Pfizer-BioNTech jab. A handful of AstraZeneca shots have also been reserved for those possibly vulnerable to severe allergic reactions.
Expanding Gibraltar's limited flights with the U.K., which is also rolling out vaccinations at high speed, could in theory be done by mandating tests and quarantines upon entry. But the contagious virus variant first found in Britain has been a source of concern.
In Spain, restrictions have tamed an end-of-the-year coronavirus surge that strained public hospitals. But, like much of the European Union, Spain is struggling with a slow vaccine rollout that hopes to immunizing 33 million residents, or 70% of its population.
Most Gibraltarians are eager to travel. With an area of only 6.7 square kilometers — a territory only a little bigger than The Vatican and Monaco, most of it dominated by the imposing presence of its famous Rock — Gibraltar can sometimes feel claustrophobic.
"I've been on the Rock now for a couple of months, without having stepped foot on Spain. That's a big part of our lives, going across the border, visiting new cities each weekend. That's what I'm looking forward to most," said Christian Segovia, a 24-year-old engineer who works at a shipping company.
With over 15,000 people fully vaccinated and an additional 11,000 awaiting their second dose, people in their 20s are now being called in for their first shots. Non-Gibraltarians who come in to work in health care or other frontline jobs are already vaccinated, and authorities are now trying to inoculate all the remaining trans-border workers.
A woman sits outside a bar, in Gibraltar, Thursday, March 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Vanesa Olivero commutes every day, crossing on foot the airport landing strip that separates Gibraltar from Spain's La Línea de la Concepción. Some 15,000 workers were making the same trip before the pandemic, but the numbers are lower now because tourism remains closed.
The 40-year-old, who sells tobacco and spirits in one of Gibraltar's many duty-free shops, says she can't wait to get her shots because facing customers puts her at risk. She suffers from asthma, has two daughters and older relatives to take care of.
"Just tell me where and when and I'll present both of my arms," joked Olivero. "I want all this to be over, to return to normality, to be able to give a hug, to give a kiss, to go for some drinks with friends."
Gibraltar has issued vaccination cards to people who get their second shot. It's also developing an app storing vaccine data and test results that authorities want to link with other platforms elsewhere to revive international travel. Critics, though, say such passports discriminate against those unable to access vaccines, especially in poorer countries.
Gino Jiménez, president of Gibraltar's Catering Association, harbors some doubts but welcomes the app if that helps bring back foreign tourists. His restaurant, a popular local hangout for breakfast and lunch, is following health guidelines to draw back those who "are still testing the waters to see if it's safe to go out."
"We are a very close, very sociable community. And there's nothing like sitting around the table having a cup of coffee and talking," said Jiménez, who is lobbying the government to quickly vaccinate the nearly 2,000 employees of restaurants and pubs, most of them Spaniards.
Waiters wear two masks, tables are reserved for a maximum of six and there are no afternoon alcohol sales.
After re-opening schools, pushing back the night-time curfew from 10 p.m. to midnight and lifting mandatory mask-wearing in low-density, non-commercial areas, the next big thing The Rock is looking forward to is Gibraltar's soccer match against the Netherlands on March 30. The World Cup qualifier will be a test for the resumption of mass events, allowing 50% stadium capacity and requiring fans to prove immunity.
While they wait, Gibraltarians are enjoying their new normality. At the Chatham Counterguard, an 18th-century defensive bastion now turned into a strip of pubs and restaurants, a dozen teammates of the Collegians Gibraltar Hockey Team celebrate over pints their first training session since November.
"This is what normality is … to be able to get a beer with your own people," said Adrian Hernandez, 51. "God, did I miss this!"