Unity Books in Wellington became a Location of Interest in the recent Covid scare in Wellington when a visitor from Sydney decided to take in the town over a weekend.

We are, it seems, on the tourist trail along with Te Papa, The Weta Cave, breakfast at Floriditas, lunch at Lido café, and shopping at a chemist down the road. As pleasing as that realization was, the short time he spent in the shop on a rainy Sunday afternoon meant we ended up with eight book-sellers and an unspecified number of book-buyers under stay at home orders.

Here’s what happened on that day we heard the news: it was just after the store opened on Wednesday that we were told that Unity was implicated via a heads-up call from a regional public health contact. I was asked to send anyone who worked on Sunday home immediately and provide the contact details of all Sunday staff. They would have to stay at home, get a Covid test around Day 5 after the exposure, and continue to stay at home until a negative result was confirmed.

Two were at work on Wednesday, so we immediate lost some booksellers that day. And then there was the one who called to say they had been at Te Papa’s Surrealist exhibition at exactly the same time was the Sydney visitor – so they would be isolating for some time too. I called the other Sunday staff and gave them the … bad (?) news. (Is having to stay home during winter in Wellington bad news?)

Those booksellers we had left put on their cleaning gloves and gave the public surfaces a good scrub around the customers who had braved Wellington amidst a Covid scare. We booked in a commercial clean for later that day. Our events team (AKA Dylan) contacted VUP to let them know we’d have to cancel the book launch planned for that evening. And we started working out how we would inform our customers of the cancellation, and of course the visit on Sunday (those browsing on Sunday afternoon were contacts too). But almost immediately I started getting texts from friends and family as RNZ had mentioned that we were a Location of Interest. There were claims of us closing to undergo a “deep clean” immediately (not true). And then all the media companies started to call…

With a “no comment” to the media (but a promise we would do so soon), we provided phoning customers with the only information we had: that anyone in our store between 1.50pm and 3.04pm on Sunday was a Casual Plus contact and needed to stay at home, and to go to the Ministry of Health website to see details. We did a tweet to confirm we were a Location of Interest and gave a link to the Health site. Somehow it was almost 1pm and Dr Ashley B was about to tell us all that, yes, there was to be a level change.

The move to level 2 meant we had to cancel all upcoming events that week, so we emailed our mailing list with the confirmation of the now famous Sunday visit and the events cancellation. It also meant we had to arrange for a couple of high-risk staff members to work from home for the rest of the week. The initial eight down had become eleven. A few minutes with the roster proved we could survive the week on less staff than we previously thought we ever should.

The comments on social media were all very nice, some expressing disbelief that anyone would spend such a short time here and one suggesting marriage to the visitor given his great taste in art, food and books. But the news media were asking why we hadn’t closed the shop (did I miss the memo?) so I called the regional health board and, no, there was no requirement to close. The nearby cafés were closed, but then their staff and customers had been told to isolate for 14 days. It seems there was a hierarchy here and we had escaped the more severe regime. To avoid the dreaded “Unity declined to comment” in evening news reports, we issued a release explaining clearly what we had done and that a professional clean would be underway shortly.

And then, suddenly, it was end of the day: Chem-Dry arrived to clean, and I did the end of day processes while the shop smelled of “natural” anti-covid product. I was mentally preparing for the hard questions expected for the next day’s phone interview with RNZ’s morning report (the hard ones never came, they just wanted to know the facts) when I looked at the day’s takings… surprisingly, it wasn’t the worst day we’d ever had.