As the Friday night dinner service began earlier this month at the De Viering restaurant outside Brussels, it seemed the owners’ decision to move the operation into the spacious village church to comply with coronavirus rules was paying off. The reservation book was full and the kitchen was bustling.
And then Belgium’s prime minister ordered cafes, bars and restaurants to close for at least a month in the face of surging infections.
“It’s another shock, of course, because — yes, all the investments are made,” said chef Heidi Vanhasselt. She and her sommelier husband Christophe Claes had installed a kitchen and new toilets in the Saint Bernardus church in Heikruis, as well as committing to 10 months’ rent and pouring energy into creative solutions.
Vanhasselt’s frustration is Europe’s as a resurgence of the coronavirus is dealing a second blow to the continent’s restaurants, which already suffered under lockdowns in the spring. From Northern Ireland to the Netherlands, European governments have shuttered eateries or severely curtailed how they operate.
More than just jobs and revenue are at stake — restaurants lie at the heart of European life. Their closures are threatening the social fabric by shutting the places where neighbors mix, extended families gather and the seeds of new families are sown.
A restaurant remains “a place where very special moments are celebrated,” said Griet Grassin of the Italian restaurant Tartufo on the outskirts of Brussels. “It’s not just the food, but it’s the well-being.”
This time, the closures are particularly painful because they might stretch into the Christmas season, nixing everything from pre-holiday office drinks to a special meal on the day.
When it comes to purely calories and vitamins, “of course we can live without restaurants,” said food historian professor Peter Scholliers.
But, he asked: “We can live without being social? No, we can’t.”
Successful restaurants have always had to adapt quickly — but never has there been a challenge like this.
The European Union said the hotel and restaurant industry suffered a jaw-dropping 79.3% decline in production between February and April. Try bouncing back from that.
Summer, with its drop in COVID-19 cases and a hesitant return to travel, brought some respite, especially in coastal resorts.
But then came fall. Any giddiness that the fallout from the pandemic could somehow be contained faced the sobering reality of relentlessly rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. Overall, COVID-19 has killed over 240,000 people across all of Europe. Government leaders are now warning things will get worse before they get better.
But many restaurant owners have bristled at the new round of restrictions, and some are openly challenging them.
In London last week, the preeminent chef Yotam Ottolenghi banged pots on the street to protest restrictions that include earlier closing times.
“It’s really hard, we’ve got a great industry with lots of heart,” Ottolenghi said. “And there’s so many people who depend on it.”
If the mood of any nation is set by its stomach, surely France’s is. And it is turning as sour as a rhubarb tartlet. The streets of Paris, the culinary capital of Lyon and several other French cities were eerily empty at night during the first week of a 9 p.m. curfew scheduled to last for at least a month.
Xavier Denamur, who owns five Parisian cafes and bistros that employ around 70 workers, said the French government is unfairly punishing the industry.
“It’s a catastrophic measure,” he said, arguing any curfew should be pushed to at least 11 p.m. to allow for a proper dinner service.
In Italy, just such a late-night curfew went into effect in Milan — and even that triggered protests.
Still, highlighting how the world is feeling its way in the near darkness, restaurant and food delivery business owner Matteo Lorenzon argued the opposite. “Having a curfew starting at 11 p.m., it’s too late.”
Already in September, more than 400,000 employees of restaurants and cafes in Italy, a nation of 60 million, were unemployed, according to an estimate by Fipe, the restaurant lobby group. Its prediction for the coming months was even more dire: “Hundreds of thousands of jobs risk being erased definitively.”
In the Netherlands, which has one of the highest virus infection rates in Europe, more than 60 Dutch bars and restaurants sought to overturn a monthlong closure order but failed. Lawyer Simon van Zijll, representing the bars and restaurants, warned that the Dutch hospitality industry faces “a tidal wave of bankruptcies.”
The first lockdown in the spring caught the owners of Tartufo, the restaurant on the outskirts of Brussels, off guard.
This time, Grassin and her husband chef Kayes Ghourabi, were ready: They will ramp up their takeaway service and even offer their own gin with Mediterranean spices. Still, income will drop by about 70% to 80%.
“We lose, but it helps the costs. The electricity, the insurance that keep on going, even in a lockdown,” she said.
Across Europe, the stories are the same — of chefs thinking creatively, making something of a bad situation, showing resilience to save something they often built from scratch.
“I have a son, and I always say to my husband, ‘the restaurant was our first child.’ And you want to fight for it,” Grassin said.
Takeout is also a lifeline for Paolo Polli, who owned five bars and restaurants in Milan before closing four recently. His staff was cut from 60 to six. He said he made more money during the lockdown with his pizza-delivery service than when he reopened for regular service.
Down south, a balmy fall offered some reprieve, allowing restaurants to serve on outside terraces.
Despite this, in Portugal, the AHRESP restaurant association said restaurants lost more than half of their revenue. Now the chilly weather, stronger winds and rain are forcing everyone back indoors, where the virus spreads most easily.
“It will be impossible,″ said Artur Veloso, who manages the Risca restaurant in Carcavelos. “Winter will bring more ruin.”
Spain became the first country in western Europe to accumulate more than 1 million confirmed COVID-19 infections on Wednesday as the nation of 47 million struggles to contain a resurgence of the virus.
The health ministry said that its accumulative case load since the start of the pandemic reached 1,005,295 after reporting 16,973 more cases in the past 24 hours.
The ministry attributes 34,366 deaths to COVID-19. Experts say that, as in most countries, the real numbers of infections and deaths are probably much higher because insufficient testing, asymptomatic cases and other issues impede authorities from capturing the true scale of the outbreak.
As the numbers rise, authorities in charge of health policy in Spain’s regions are tightening restrictions. They want to stem the surge that has been building in recent months while avoiding a second total lockdown of home confinements that stemmed the first wave of the virus but left the economy reeling.
The regional government of northern Aragón announced Wednesday they have closed the city limits of Zaragoza, Huesca and Teruel. Neighboring Navarra, which leads Spain in infections per 100,000 over 14 days, is preparing to become the first Spanish region to close its borders on Thursday. La Rioja will also close its regional borders on Friday.
Spain’s Health Minister Salvador Illa and regional heads of health will meet on Thursday to discuss their virus strategies and consider employing nightly curfews to target late-night partying as a source of contagion.
“I want to be very clear,” Illa said Tuesday. “Some very hard weeks are coming.”
France is not far behind in western Europe with over 930,000 reported cases. Russia has reported over 1.4 million cases. The U.S. leads the world with over 8 million reported cases, according to the Johns Hopkins tally that is considered a global standard for charting the progress of the pandemic.
Spain’s cases per 100,000 inhabitants over 14 days, which is a more reliable indicator of the evolution of the virus, has decreased in recent days. It currently sits at 332 cases per 100,000, a figure that is still worrying but now lower than the Czech Republic, Belgium, Netherlands, France and Britain.
Despite the higher number of asymptomatic cases found through improved testing, the pressure is being felt in Spain’s hospitals. Over 3,900 patients have required hospitalization over the past week, with 274 needing intensive care, the ministry said. Almost 40% of Madrid’s ICU units are occupied by COVID-19 patients.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was headed for a landslide win and a second term in office Saturday in New Zealand’s general election.
With more than half the votes counted, Ardern’s liberal Labour Party had nearly double the support of its main challenger, the conservative National Party.
“It's a landslide that looks like our vote is the best it has been since the 1940s,” said Labour Minister David Parker. “It's a tremendous accolade first and foremost to the prime minister, but also to the wider Labour team and the Labour movement.”
A record number of voters cast early ballots in the two weeks leading up to the election.
Labour was on the cusp of winning an outright majority in Parliament, something that hasn’t happened since New Zealand implemented a proportional voting system 24 years ago. Typically, parties must form alliances to govern, but this time Ardern and Labour may be able to go it alone.
On the campaign trail, Ardern was greeted like a rock star by people who crammed into malls and spilled onto streets to cheer her on and get selfies with her.
Her popularity soared earlier this year after she led a successful effort to stamp out the coronavirus. There is currently no community spread of the virus in the nation of 5 million and people are no longer required to wear masks or social distance.
Ardern, 40, won the top job after the 2017 election when Labour formed an alliance with two other parties. The following year, she became only the second world leader to give birth while in office.
She became a role model for working mothers around the world, many of whom saw her as a counterpoint to President Donald Trump. And she was praised for her handling of last year’s attack on two Christchurch mosques, when a white supremacist gunned down 51 Muslim worshippers.
She moved quickly to pass new laws banning the deadliest types of semi-automatic weapons.
In late March this year, when only about 100 people had tested positive for COVID-19, Ardern and her health officials put New Zealand into a strict lockdown with a motto of “Go hard and go early.” She shut the borders and outlined an ambitious goal of eliminating the virus entirely rather than just trying to control its spread.
With New Zealand having the advantage of being an isolated island nation, the strategy worked. The country eliminated community transmission for 102 days before a new cluster was discovered in August in Auckland.
Ardern swiftly imposed a second lockdown in Auckland and the new outbreak faded away. The only new cases found recently have been among returning travelers, who are in quarantine.
The Auckland outbreak also prompted Ardern to postpone the election by a month and helped increase the early voter turnout.
The National Party’s leader, Judith Collins, is a former lawyer. She served as a minister when National was in power and prides herself on a blunt, no-nonsense approach, a contrast to Ardern’s empathetic style. Collins, 61, was promising sweeping tax cuts in response to the economic downturn caused by the virus.
In the election, voters also had a say on two contentious social issues — whether to legalize marijuana and euthanasia. Polls taken before the election indicated the euthanasia referendum was likely to pass while the marijuana vote remained uncertain. The results of both referendums will be announced Oct. 30.
Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday carried out her first public engagement outside of a royal residence since early March when the coronavirus pandemic started to impact upon on all aspects of day-to-day life in the U.K.
The 94-year-old monarch was joined by her grandson Prince William at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down near Salisbury, in southern England, and met with scientists battling the virus.
The queen unveiled a plaque to officially open the new 30 million-pound ($39 million) Energetics Analysis Centre, used by scientists for counter-terrorist work. The royal pair were also introduced to staff involved in the rapid response to the Novichok poisoning attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in 2018.
Though the U.K. is in the midst of a resurgence of the virus, neither the queen nor William were seen donning a face covering but both observed social distancing rules of staying 2 meters (6.5 feet) apart from each other and anyone else. The queen had arrived by helicopter separately from the Duke of Cambridge, who had travelled by car.
A spokesman for the palace said all advice was followed.
All 48 people who were due to come into close contact with the royal pair had been tested for the coronavirus. All the tests came back negative.
Kensington Palace, the London residence of William, declined to comment as to whether the prince had also been required to have a test in order to be able to accompany his grandmother at Thursday’s event.
The queen’s last official public engagement outside of a royal residence was on March 9 when she joined the royal family for the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey. Before the U.K. was put into full lockdown on March 23, the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, moved to Windsor Castle, which is around 25 miles (40 kms) west of London.
They spent a large chunk of the past few months at the royal residence of Balmoral in Scotland, before they moved to Sandringham in eastern England. The queen returned last week to Windsor Castle to resume audiences and small engagements, while Philip, 99, has stayed at Sandringham.
Though living a far more solitary existence, over the past few months, the queen has been a visible presence, most notably in her two televised addresses to the nation from Windsor Castle in April and May, which were partly intended to bolster people’s resolve in the face of the lockdown.
She also knighted in July at Windsor Castle the 100-year-old Captain Sir Tom Moore for his fundraising efforts in the early days of the pandemic.
And she has been seen taking part in her first video conference call to support those caring for others, often in difficult circumstances at home during the pandemic.
On signing the guest book Thursday at Porton Down, the queen quipped: “Well it proves we’ve been here, doesn’t it?”
It’s certainly been a while since she could say that.
Covid-19 is now the fifth leading cause of death in Europe, said Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, regional head of the UN World Health Organization (WHO).
Nearly 700,000 cases were reported this week which is the highest weekly incidence since the pandemic began in March, he said on Thursday.
Kluge said the tightening up of restrictions by governments is “absolutely necessary” as the disease continues to surge, with “exponential increases” in cases and deaths, reports the UN News.
“The evolving epidemiological situation in Europe raises great concern: daily numbers of cases are up, hospital admissions are up, Covid-19 is now the fifth leading cause of death and the bar of 1,000 deaths per day has now been reached,” he reported.
Cases reach record highs
Dr. Kluge said overall, Europe has recorded more than seven million cases of Covid-19, with the jump from six million taking just 10 days.
This past weekend, daily case totals surpassed 120,000 for the first time, and on both Saturday and Sunday, reaching new records.
However, he stressed that the region has not returned to the early days of the pandemic.
“Although we record two to three times more cases per day compared to the April peak, we still observe five times fewer deaths. The doubling time in hospital admissions is still two to three times longer,” he said, adding “in the meantime, the virus has not changed; it has not become more nor less dangerous.”
Potential worsening a reality
Dr. Kluge explained that one reason for the higher case rates is increased Covid-19 testing, including among younger people. This population also partly accounts for the decreased mortality rates.
“These figures say that the epidemiological curve rebound is so far higher, but the slope is lower and less fatal for now. But it has the realistic potential to worsen drastically if the disease spreads back into older age cohorts after more indoor social contacts across generations,” he warned.
Looking ahead, Dr. Kluge admitted that projections are “not optimistic”.
Reliable epidemiological models indicate that prolonged relaxing of policies could result in mortality levels four to five times higher than in April, with results visible by January 2021.
He stressed the importance of maintaining simple measures already in place, as the modelling shows how wearing masks, coupled with strict control of social gathering, may save up to 281,000 lives across the region by February.
This assumes a 95 per cent rate for mask use, up from the current rate, which is less than 60 per cent.
Restrictions ‘absolutely necessary’
“Under proportionately more stringent scenarios, the model is reliably much more optimistic, still with slightly higher levels of morbidity and mortality than in the first wave, but with a lower slope – as if we should rather expect a higher and longer swell instead of a sharp peak, giving us more reaction time,” said Dr. Kluge.
“These projections do nothing but confirm what we always said: the pandemic won’t reverse its course on its own, but we will,” he said.
The WHO bureau chief underlined the importance of targeted national responses to contain COVID-19 spread.
“Measures are tightening up in many countries in Europe, and this is good because they are absolutely necessary,” he said. “They are appropriate and necessary responses to what the data is telling us: transmission and sources of contamination occur in homes and indoor public places, and within communities poorly complying with self-protection measures,” Dr. Kluge said.