A dose of the old normal in mask-free Sweden

Oliver Smith
·7-min read
Sweden now offers the chance to do something truly special: travel back in time - getty
Sweden now offers the chance to do something truly special: travel back in time - getty

Fed up with social distancing? Head to Sweden. 

On Sunday evening in Malmo I spent the best part of an hour crammed inside a very small and very steamy wooden cabin with 20 strapping men. Were we wearing masks? Don’t be silly. We weren’t even wearing underwear. 

Even before the pandemic, a traditional Swedish sauna was probably not the best place for agoraphobes – my experience would suggest very little has changed. This was my first trip to a proper Scandi sauna (or bastu, as they’re known in Sweden), and – dressed in nothing but my birthday suit – I tried my best to stride in confidently. But at the sight of the packed benches, I stopped in my tracks. 

“Oh… there’s no room,” I muttered to my friend Craig, a naturalised Swede and sauna regular. “Nonsense! You’ve just got to get stuck in,” he replied, before showing the way and sliding himself expertly into a tiny gap between two of the biggest and hairiest attendees. 

Oh well, when in Rome… 

What followed was the most socially non-distanced experience I’ve enjoyed all year: 60 minutes (minus occasional breaks for a dip in the sea) of sitting cheek-by-jowl – nose-to-knackers – with a score of naked strangers. And, believe it or not, it was just what I’d been hankering for.  

I had embarked on a last-minute long weekend in Sweden for two reasons. Firstly, because it was one of the last few options that wouldn’t involve a two-week quarantine on my return home. Secondly, because I wanted a slice of the old normal: no social distancing, no masks, no fear. I’d endured seven months of nervous nonsense. Enough was enough. 

Sweden didn’t follow the crowd with its Covid strategy - getty
Sweden didn’t follow the crowd with its Covid strategy - getty

As has been well documented, Sweden didn’t follow the crowd with its Covid strategy. It didn’t order businesses to close and its people to stay at home. It didn’t ban socialising or mandate the wearing of face coverings. It didn’t tell its police force to break up family picnics or disperse beachgoers. It simply informed its residents of the facts and left them free to make their own risk-based decisions. How wonderful.  

That doesn’t mean nothing has changed. For the moment, gatherings of 50 or more are banned – so raves and festivals are still off the cards. A few tell-tale signs of the pandemic – sticky tape on the floor, perspex screens at the till – can be seen in some shops. But compared to fearful Britain it felt like utopia. 

The weekend began very much according to the “new normal” script as I kept tabs on the UK’s ever-changing quarantine guidance. Having been snubbed in July when the first “travel corridors” were announced, Sweden was finally added to the green list last month. Since then, however, its case rate has crept up, crossing the UK’s seven-day threshold of 20 per 100,000 residents, after which travel restrictions are considered. Fearing it would be relegated to the naughty step on Thursday evening – after the Government carried out its weekly review of the quarantine policy – I waited until the last minute to book my trip. Fortunately, while Turkey and Poland were shown the door, Sweden was spared. 

I bagged flights with BA (arriving in Stockholm, departing from Gothenburg) for £150 and less than 16 hours later was pottering around an eerily quiet Heathrow. If the impact of our quarantine policy wasn’t already obvious, try taking a trip to what was once the world’s busiest airport. Social distancing, needless to say, was not a problem in Terminal 5 (masks, nevertheless, are still mandatory).  

To my surprise, however, the flight was nearly full. Given all the talk in Britain of fresh restrictions, and even a second nationwide lockdown, clearly I wasn’t the only one keen for a break from the doom and gloom. We departed a rain-lashed London and arrived two hours later in a sunny Stockholm. 

The city, built on a clutch of islands and adorned with elegant architecture, is a delight to explore on foot, and – transfer from the airport negotiated – I opted to take a meandering route from the main railway station to my waterside hotel.

Within minutes my spirits were lifted. The Royal Palace glowed in the evening sun. A pair of swans swooped overhead as I crossed the bridge to the old town of Gamla Stan. Office workers cradled beers and chatted on the terraces. Couples ambled along the cobbles, arm-in-arm. But best of all? Nobody was wearing a mask. 

Sweden is one of the few countries that hasn’t signed up to the cult of the mask. Almost nobody wears them: even on the metro and in crowded shops - getty
Sweden is one of the few countries that hasn’t signed up to the cult of the mask. Almost nobody wears them: even on the metro and in crowded shops - getty

It seems so obvious an assertion that I feel ludicrous writing it, but the sight of many masked faces is – at best – unconducive to a relaxing and carefree weekend. At worst, it is utterly terrifying and dystopian. Humans are social animals, and interacting with others is essential for our wellbeing. I want to see the faces, and the smiles, of the people I encounter (I’d like to think they also want to see mine). Especially when worn outside, where the chances of contracting this virus are all but zero, masks seem to serve no other purpose than to remind us that there’s a pandemic. In short, they really spoil the holiday vibe. 

Sweden is one of the few countries that hasn’t signed up to the cult of the mask. Its top epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, maintains that there is no strong evidence to support their use in the community (something the World Health Organisation also told us for months, until political lobbying convinced it to change its tune), and they are not mandatory anywhere except airports. Subsequently, almost nobody wears them: even on the metro and in crowded shops. I saw a few masked tourists queuing outside Stockholm’s National Museum, and a couple at the railway station… but that was it.  

The same was true in Malmo, which I reached by train on Saturday and where I stayed with Craig and his partner Joanna. They live among the funky contemporary homes of the Västra Hamnen neighbourhood, conceived in 2001 as part of an architectural exhibition and now a magnet for trendy young professionals. Two nights in their company offered a remarkable snapshot of a country that isn’t creaking under the weight of Covid fear. 

Västra Hamnen - getty
Västra Hamnen - getty

When I arrived they had the neighbours round – a rarity in Britain these days – and these neighbours greeted me – a total stranger who had just flown in from London – with hugs and handshakes. Joanna’s daughter Anais, a student from nearby Lund University, joined us for dinner (despite a recent rise in cases among young Swedes, she hasn’t been confined to her halls of residence or banned from visiting her family). After dinner she met a group of (more than six) friends for a night on the town.  

On Sunday morning, we joined the brave locals for a swim in the freezing Baltic before warming our cockles with coffee and cinnamon buns in a bustling local cafe. Joanna’s friend Elena joined us and, despite being huddled closely around a small table, there was no Covid awkwardness – just happy conversation. 

In the afternoon – ahead of our intimate sauna – we explored Malmo on two wheels, skirting the coast, passing beneath the famous Oresund Bridge, which links it with Copenhagen, before embarking on a tour of the city centre, with its medieval architecture, vast modern library, red-and-white lighthouse and quirky parks. All the while I saw not a single covered face, but also none of those other irritating virus reminders: no patronising government awareness posters, no cordoned off benches, no restaurant tables separated by screens, no discarded masks in the gutter. If only for a weekend, I barely thought of the pandemic. It was bliss.

Swimmers brave the water in the shadow of the Oresund Bridge - getty
Swimmers brave the water in the shadow of the Oresund Bridge - getty

The dream ended abruptly on Monday morning, with an early train to Gothenburg and a flight back to Heathrow, but if this worldwide hysteria goes on for much longer, I’m sure I’ll be back. Sweden now offers the chance to do something truly special: travel back in time. For anyone else missing the world before Covid, go while you still can.