It is almost exactly one year since we were first ordered to close our restaurant because of the Coronavirus Pandemic and it seems now that the situation is almost as bad as it ever was.
In March 2020 when the virus was first raging around the World it was completely understandable that public places were closed. We had very little information on this disease, its causes, effects and methods of transmission but we all fully expected to be back open and running normally by the summer. In fact here in France we were closed for eleven weeks before reopening in June for the summer season.
A season that was almost normal except for limited seating capacity and restaurant staff wearing face masks, but then came the “second wave”. We struggled through early autumn with increasing worries about restrictions and business levels but, inevitably, we were ordered to close our restaurants again at the end of October 2020. At this stage we do not have a date for reopening.
As with the closure last March we are permitted to offer a takeaway service but there are also a number of significant differences. This time round the population is not confined or locked down in the same way but there is a nationwide 6pm curfew being strictly enforced. It means that people are not allowed out even to collect takeaway food from a restaurant, so our business is now effectively limited to lunchtime.
However, to be fair to the French government they have supported the hospitality industry extremely well with monthly payments to business owners and a system of “chomage partiel” for employees whereby they are continuing to pay 100% of wages. But what of the future?
In England, where the Covid vaccination campaign is well advanced, it has been announced that pubs and restaurants can open their outdoor spaces from April 12th but indoor dining will have to wait until mid-May. In mainland Europe the vaccination process is not progressing quite as well and the majority of hospitality venues are still closed. Spain is one exception.
They have announced this week that bar and restaurant terraces can open from 7.30am until 5pm with limited capacity and masks to be worn except when consuming food or drink and no smoking permitted. Here in France, where my restaurant is, there is much talk about the measures that may be in place when finally we reopen.
It goes without saying that we will have to maintain at least one metre between tables, thereby limiting our capacity, and that staff and customers will have to continue wearing face coverings. There is also talk of customers having to scan a QR code with their smartphone on entering the restaurant. The code will be unique to the establishment and if there are any reported Covid cases all customers will be informed to isolate.
It is very similar to the various contract tracing apps that already exist but taken to a new level. There is also talk of customers either having to prove that they have received a vaccine or proving a negative Covid test within a certain timeframe. In my opinion this is more than a little controversial with, most likely, the restaurant owner and staff having to police the system and fines being issued for contraventions. But the way the conversation is going in Europe there will definitely be some form of digital Covid Passport introduced very soon, whether for access to public spaces or for international travel.
We have been closed now for over four months this time with virtually no hope of reopening before mid-May, meaning nearly seven months closed. The toll on the hospitality industry has been massive and even with government handouts I wonder how many will keep the doors closed for good. Time will tell, and we hope that when the time comes for firing up the kitchen again it will be for a proper reopening without the fear of further closures.