Europe’s Grand Reopening Begins With a Whimper

Last week, bars, restaurants, cafes and pizzerias across Italy threw open their doors, inviting the public to celebrate the end of two months of confinement and start getting back to some semblance of normal life.

The result, so far, has been a disaster.

Customers have been in short supply, proceeds have been meager, and costs are on the rise. Businesses have reported a 70% drop in turnover compared to before the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey by FIPE, the Italian Federation of Public Establishments — the result of new social distancing requirements as well as lingering fears about the virus’ spread.

Business owners see little hope of the situation improving anytime soon. There are no tourists in the historic centers of major cities, and many office workers are continuing to work from home, leaving cafes and restaurants mostly empty. 

Moreover, the coronavirus seems to have fundamentally changed the Italian lifestyle — at least for now. With establishments forced to limit capacity, it’s difficult for people to imagine having the kind of leisurely, convivial lunches and dinners that have long characterized the Italian way of dining out.

“Unfortunately, the short to medium term outlook is negative, there is no doubt about it,” Luciano Sbraga, FIPE’s deputy director, told HuffPost Italy. “We expect to see an improvement in September and into the fall.”

Even then, however, any increase in economic activity could quickly be undone by a second wave of coronavirus infections.

“This is the real danger,” Sbraga said. “It would be the final blow to the industry, and one from which we would never recover.”

A cafe facing the Pantheon in Rome on May 20. Without tourists or office workers, many restaurants and bars remain empty.

A cafe facing the Pantheon in Rome on May 20. Without tourists or office workers, many restaurants and bars remain empty.

The situation is similar in France, where cafes and restaurants have been struggling as well.

The Café des Anges, a normally bustling restaurant in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, has pivoted to preparing takeout orders, which it didn’t offer before the coronavirus pandemic.

”It is worth it to get back in touch with people, and it puts a little bit of money in the till,” Virgil, the manager, told HuffPost France.

But, he said, the cafe’s current business is down to just 4% or 5% of what it usually does.

“It’s better than not being open, but it’s not sustainable for very long,” Virgil said.

The French government is expected to allow restaurants, bars and cafes in so-called “green” zones, where coronavirus cases are sufficiently low, to welcome guests again starting on June 2. But this easing of restrictions won’t necessarily help restaurants bounce back.

“Quite honestly, if we wanted to reopen tomorrow, even if full capacity were allowed, it would never be reached,” Virgil said. “There is no one in the neighborhood at the moment, the offices are empty, people have not returned to work. Normally, it is office workers who fill the restaurant. And we don’t have tourists, either.”

The European Commission has estimated that European hotels and restaurants will lose half their income this year, and certain destinations that are particularly reliant on the tourist economy will suffer even more.

A bartender selling take-away drinks and food waits for customers behind a makeshift counter along the sidewalk in Paris on M

A bartender selling take-away drinks and food waits for customers behind a makeshift counter along the sidewalk in Paris on May 9.

Many European nations are planning to open their borders to international travelers in the coming days and weeks, in the hopes of saving the summer tourism season.

In April, the Commission announced the need for a “Marshall Plan” to revive European tourism, and plans to organize a special European tourism summit in the months ahead.

Even if travelers manage to get over their coronavirus fears, however, travel operators worry that new health and safety restrictions at bars, restaurants, hotels and beaches will be a buzzkill.

“We had plenty of complaint letters from people  . . .  who were abroad as lockdown came down because they couldn’t go in the pool or weren’t allowed to the beach,” Simon Cooper, chief executive of the online travel company On the Beach, told the Financial Times.

“You wouldn’t book a holiday where that will be an outcome. Would I want to even sell a holiday like that?”

In the United Kingdom, the government is considering adding an extra bank holiday in October — a proposal from the official tourist agency, VisitBritain, to help offset the losses the tourism industry has suffered during the coronavirus pandemic.

The government has yet to rule on the proposal. But even if the extra holiday is approved, it’s uncertain whether Britons would take advantage of it.

According to a recent YouGov poll, only 4% of Brits said they would use the extra holiday to travel abroad, and just 8% said they would go on holiday domestically.

Far more — 27% of respondents — said they would just stay home.

With reporting from HuffPost Italy and HuffPost France.

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