I WAS jittery about the prospect of returning to a shopping centre for the first time in nearly six months - and it turns out I had good reason to be.

I was horrified at the amount of people not wearing masks. And please don’t say they must all have some kind of condition excluding them from doing so because, frankly, I don’t believe that’s the case. If it was just a handful of people then fine - I appreciate there are some valid reasons for not wearing face coverings - but many of those I saw without them were breezing around as if a global pandemic had never happened. One man, his mask dangling under his face like a grubby hammock, was playing tag with his young daughter in a shop, dodging in and out of clothing rails with no regard for anyone else.

Any notion of social distancing had disappeared along with the face coverings. A bloke greeted his mate with a macho hug - neither of them wearing masks. I saw clusters of mask-free people wandering around together and, though I tutted in quiet indignation behind my own mask, I wasn’t going to be the one to confront them because you just don’t, do you? Most of the mask-less had a look of either defiance or indifference.

I don’t blame shop staff for not confronting them either, since they’d only get a mouthful of abuse.

Nobody likes wearing a mask, but wearing one is as much about courtesy as it is safety. As Lady GaGa said at the MTV VMAs last month, "it's a sign of respect". 

It did occur to me that while it seems perfectly acceptable for people to wander around shops, brushing up against others and practically flaunting their mask-free faces, other places such theatres, which can be much more controlled environments, remain closed.

Andrew Lloyd Webber has warned that the arts are at the “point of no return” following the pandemic. The composer and theatre impresario said the Government had given him “no satisfactory answer” to why people can fly on a plane without social distancing but not attend a theatre.

Theatres and arts venues have been closed since early April and most look set to remain closed until well into 2021. I know people employed in the arts who lost their income overnight, and have struggled to find other work. That includes professional performers, musicians, stage managers, wardrobe teams, technicians, front of house staff... Lord Lloyd-Webber cited an acquaintance, “one of the finest viola players I know”, now working in a supermarket.

He told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee the Government’s £1.57 billion rescue package was “giving money to buildings to keep the lights off” instead of getting them open.

Keeping theatres closed is catastrophic for an industry that generates vital income for venues, staff, production companies and the local and national economy, with spin-offs for other businesses, such as restaurants, bars and hotels.

Of course there are challenges when it comes to live theatre and Covid safety guidance, but surely with social distance seating, one-way systems, table service and sanitising stations in place, theatres could be opened to those who want to use them.

While it may be some time before large-scale, more complex productions can be toured and staged again, can’t some live theatre be adapted to suit a new normal?

We have quite rightly been encouraged to support pubs, cafes and restaurants as they re-open, as well as the non-essential shops - where I’ve seen so many mask-less faces. We also need to channel support into the arts sector, before it’s too late.

And if it’s mandatory to wear a mask to the theatre, I believe that those who really want to support the arts will abide by that.