Gibraltar – “It’s really liberating,” said Samuel Calvente, a Gibraltar hotel worker, when asked how it feels to be mask-free outdoors.
“Having that mask on all the time was claustrophobic and stressful, particularly because this is a hot, humid place in summer. Wearing a face mask in 40-degree heat when you’re sweating away is extremely unpleasant.”
Weeks ago, Fabian Picardo, the chief minister of the tiny British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar, announced that with a hugely advanced vaccination programme, for the first time in nine months, there were zero active COVID-19 cases among Gibraltar’s resident population – as continues to be the case – and that some of the most stringent public health measures, such as wearing face masks outside, could finally be lifted.
A world-leading total of 85 percent of Gibraltar’s population is now vaccinated against COVID-19, as well as all of its 15,000 foreign workers.
Only Israel, with roughly 60 percent of its population vaccinated, is anywhere near that figure.
It remains to be seen how quickly two of Gibraltar’s key industries, tourism and retail, can return to their pre-pandemic levels.
Cruise liners still barred from visiting the territory, which has a population of about 34,000, and, when Al Jazeera visited last week, there was only a thin trickle of pedestrians and cars across Gibraltar’s only land border, with the Spanish city of La Línea.
Although its duty-free shops may remain empty, masks are still obligatory in indoor public spaces and you still have to fill out a COVID-19 contact form in restaurants.
But that said, last week, not even heavy rain showers could stop people flocking to the terraces of bars and cafés.
Locals enjoyed coffees or beers, with pubs once again permitted to open until late hours.
Gibraltar feels like a microcosm of what post-pandemic daily life further afield in Europe could, one day, become again.
“I don’t know how much of an example we are, because this is a very small, closely-knit community,” Ivan Perez, manager of TAG consultancy, an auditing company, told Al Jazeera as he sipped on a coffee in the central Casemates square.
“But in terms of giving assurance to the rest of the world, we’re fine with being guinea pigs for that.
“Equally, if things had gone wrong here, and we’d now got other variants [of the virus] affecting us, at least people further afield would be aware of that. And as a very small population, we’d be easier to test.”
After emerging from the first wave of the pandemic relatively unscathed, nearly all of Gibraltar’s 94 COVID-19 related deaths, as well as the bulk of more than 4,000 infections, occurred in early 2021.
Cases suddenly rocketed, before plummeting again in February and March and the second lockdown was lifted.
“Nearly 100 deaths in a small community like ours is a lot. If you didn’t directly know the person who died, you’d know their family,” said Perez’s wife Yoana, a product sales adviser.
She said the eased restrictions feel odd, but are above all “a relief”.
“Where I work, indoors, you still have to wear your mask all the time. Then sometimes I go home with my mask still on and have to remind myself it’s no longer necessary.
“At the same time, people come into the shop without a mask on and I have to remind them it’s still needed indoors.”
Asked if she considered Gibraltar as an example to follow, Health Minister Samantha Sacramento told Al Jazeera: “A road map would be one way to describe it, another would a beacon of hope of how things can be on the other side of all this.
“I’d say we are an example of how things can work out well when a people unite to work together for a common goal.”
However, one local health expert warned against viewing Gibraltar as a testing ground.
“Gibraltar is a very small community, with very stable social connections, everybody knows who their neighbours are.
“It’s way too controlled an environment to calculate risk levels to guide what other places could do,” José Hernández, a specialist in social health policies and assistant sociology professor at the University of Córdoba in Spain’s adjacent region of Andalusia, told Al Jazeera.
“What is true is that Gibraltar is now reaping the benefits of its people following social norms and restrictions in lockdown, largely out of a sense of civic duty, rather than viewing them as an imposition, which has been much more the case in Spain.
“That’s a great example to follow.”
In Spain, the pandemic continues to exact a heavy toll on the population and businesses, although with rising vaccination rates and falling deaths, there is a sense of cautious optimism.
Calvente, who crosses the border from his home in La Línea every day, said: “In Spain, things are progressing much more slowly and it could take ages to reach similar levels of vaccination and public safety as Gibraltar.
“If you compared a nearby Andalusian town with roughly the same population, they’re only up to to a fraction of the vaccination levels. Here, they’ve maximised their resources and they’ve acted fast.”
But as the conversational buzz from café tables rises, the sense of a place coming out of pandemic hibernation is inescapable.
“People have had a very rough time everywhere and Gibraltar is no exception,” said Ivan Perez.
“We’re just looking forward to hanging out with friends and family and simply having a coffee like we’re having now. It’s been a long time coming.”