Special Edition: EU hospitality sector seeks support to open, not remain closed

EURACTIV’s network spoke with representatives from the sector and governments across Europe who came up with some ideas. Their practical implementation, though, will be a challenge, as government support will be crucial. [Shutterstock/Rido]

Following the first lockdown, Europe’s hospitality sector was the first to take immediate safety measures. However, it has also been the sector that has paid the full cost of the pandemic.

In 18 out of 27 EU member states, pubs, restaurants and cafes remain closed. In the other nine countries, they operate partially with strict measures in place.

EURACTIV’s network spoke with representatives from the sector and governments across Europe who came up with some ideas. Their practical implementation, though, will be a challenge, as government support will be crucial.

Don’t miss…
  • A virtual discussion on the future of the foodservice sector, supported by METRO. Register here.
  • Click on the video below which includes interviews with Constantinos Michalos, president of the Athens Chamber of Commerce and deputy president of Eurochambres, as well as Simon Spillane, Director of Communications of Brewers of Europe, who shared their views on the future of the sector.

Currently, there is no indication when they could be allowed to re-open. Most businesses in the hospitality sector are SMEs and they are seeing debts piling up, despite temporary supportive measures introduced across Europe.

At an EU summit on 21 January, leaders said more stringent measures may be taken in light of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) warning about a “very high” probability of strains with much higher infectivity.

Two thorny issues arise: first, how many businesses will manage to re-open, and second, how they will survive bankruptcy and under what conditions they will be able to operate.

“Businesses are now seeking support to re-open, not to remain closed,” Simon Spillane, director of communications of Brewers of Europe, told EURACTIV.

The hospitality sector is now calling on the EU and governments to come up with a plan to re-open the sector in a sustainable manner and ditch the “open-close” approach.

Despite the lack of an overall plan, the sector is looking into ways to re-open by putting additional innovative safety measures in place to address the new reality.

Governments across the bloc have supported businesses with temporary financial schemes to avoid unemployment. But the debate now is whether SMEs in the hospitality sector will have the support they need to take fresh measures and ultimately open up.

“I believe that governments should provide funds for restaurateurs so they can modernise their businesses and make them permanently safe for their customers and staff. This will help the industry to survive and will create trust while protecting citizens against infections,” said Eric Poirier, a board member of METRO AG, an international food wholesaler specialised in serving the needs of customers in the hospitality sector.

EU Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit

“Hospitality should be at the heart of national recovery plans”

EU Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit, told EURACTIV that many businesses have been quick to innovate and find solutions that allow them to provide a takeaway or delivery service.

“Of course, we all look forward to a time when we can visit our favourite café or restaurant and enjoy time with family and friends over a meal or drink, as we did before the pandemic hit,” he said.

 

Schmit said the hospitality sector should be at the core of the EU Recovery Fund.

“The national plans should focus on reforms and investments that will generate the most lasting impact. Placing the hospitality and tourism sectors at the heart of national recovery and resilience plans will therefore be essential, and we encourage member states to involve these sectors in the design, implementation and monitoring of the recovery plans,” he said.

However, the Commission does not have a sector-specific approach when it comes to the recovery.

“Our objective is to rebuild the economy in an inclusive and sustainable way that is fit for the green and digital age,” Schmit said and added they rely on the expert advice given by the World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease Control “to inform national authorities in making the right choices when it comes to reopening the sector”.

MEP Paolo Borchia

“Need for national plans by all means”

MEP Paolo Borchia strongly criticised the governments for their handling of the hospitality sector crisis and the lack of consistent planning.

“What happened over the last few months showed that governments have just routinely second-guessed their own decisions concerning the measures to be applied to the sector. The price of such second-guessing has been paid so far by SME owners and employees.”

The Italian MEP said the sector needs an immediate and substantial cash injection, in the form of grants and non-repayable loans. However, even financial instruments of this strength must still be matched at the same time by a solid and well-planned reopening strategy.

“Such plans should be implemented at the national level, while at this stage the EU as such should rather ensure that no member state takes actions that could result in imbalances vis-a-vis the other member states, for example where vaccine’s acquisition operations are concerned,” he said, adding that re-opening in a safemanner is possible.

When it comes to the Recovery Fund, Borchia warned that there may be accessibility issues for SMEs, adding that there is also scepticism as to the actual amount that will be made available.

“Observers from various fields have already questioned the drafts presented by some governments, for example, by spotting out contradictory objectives, and this is certainly not a good sign.”

Last but not least, he added that the Commission has set excessively strict reform benchmarks for the approval of national plans.

“Such strong conditionality casts further doubt over the actual overall impact of the Recovery Plan. Needless to say, bars and restaurants that have already been closed for months can no longer afford to wait any further.”

Although most governments have not yet set plans to re-open the sector, HORECA associations across Europe are already mulling ways to return to normality in a sustainable digital-driven manner.


WESTERN EUROPE

PARIS | Ministry: Working with the sector to reopen sustainably

France has deployed significant emergency financial aid following the closure of bars and restaurants but does not rely on health measures as such to reopen them earlier.

“All government decisions concerning bars and restaurants have been and will be co-shaped with the professional federations, the cabinet of the minister in charge of Small and Medium Enterprises, Alain Griset, told EURACTIV France.

The cabinet added that once the date for the reopening of restaurants and shops is set, work will be done beforehand, based on the previous sanitary protocols put in place.

The ministry believes that the previous health protocols do not include very costly measures and enable the companies to break-even.

But health protocols also pose problems in terms of turnover.

“The distance of 1.5 m between tables means reducing the number of tables. When a restaurant has 50 tables, the rent, the staff, the bank loan represent a cost which is based on them. If you open anyway with 20 tables, it doesn’t work”, said Donpierre Suzarinni, associate director of a pizzeria in Paris, which has 13 employees.

“Masks and hydro-alcoholic gel do not cost much financially. Why not a 100% financed air purifier, but you also need to have the space to install it,” he added.

But for Suzarinni, reopening his restaurant “halfway” would make him lose more money than by continuing deliveries and take-away sales, whose turnover is not deducted from state aid.

As far as digital tools are concerned, the “click and collect” system makes it possible to minimise contacts. Similarly, French start-ups such as Billee or Skeat are developing systems with digitised menu and to payment directly at the table, for example via QR codes. As for the vaccination passport, for the measure to be useful, it would be necessary to wait until everyone has been vaccinated.

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BERLIN | Hospitality sector did its part, now it’s government’s turn

Since November, Germany’s restaurants and bars have only been allowed to do delivery and takeaway. In the near-term, the government is focused on infection rates instead of proposing reopening plans. Many in the hospitality industry have been critical of this and of delays in receiving emergency aid.

“The faster the infection figures fall, the faster our economy will start to pick up again. The lockdown regulations are therefore a show of strength in the interests of all our health as well as the economy,” the German Economy Ministry (BMWi) told EURACTIV Germany when asked about the path forward for the hospitality industry.

Instead, the BMWi pointed towards the emergency economic aid. The most recent round of bridging assistance, which is valid through to June, reimburses businesses for up to 90% of their fixed costs, the ministry highlighted.

Earlier rounds of funding also included reimbursements for purchasing disinfectants and air filtration systems. The latest aid helps with renovations to adhere to hygiene standards up to €20,000.

Associations have been critical of the government’s handling of this lockdown. Last week, Guido Zöllick, president of the German Hotel and Restaurant Association (DEHOGA) lamented a lack of “an opening perspective.”

“The fact is that restaurants are not pandemic drivers, even according to the Robert Koch Institute. They already invested in extensive hygiene and protection plans in the spring and optimised processes…Digital registration tools were [also] used in 2020, in some cases very successfully,” DEHOGA’s managing director, Ingrid Hartges, told EURACTIV Germany.

For now, Hartges agrees that the timeline for reopening will depend on “how infection incidence develops and on the successful implementation of the vaccination strategy,” but a key concern remains in the distribution of the emergency aid. Since December, businesses have been raising the alarm that aid is coming too late and not in the promised amounts.

Beyond this, another restaurant association, Leaders Club, laid out a proposal for staggered local reopenings determined by new infection rates over a seven-day period in a strategy paper from November. These suggestions would apply in places with fewer than 50 new infections per 100,000, a figure which is way off for most municipalities.

The German government has thus far rejected the idea of special privileges for those that areimmunised.

“Many are waiting in solidarity so that some can be vaccinated first, and the not-yet-vaccinated conversely expect the vaccinated to wait in solidarity,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said in December.

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BRUSSELS | Swift re-opening or risk of bankruptcies

In Belgium, a quarter of companies in Brussels and Wallonia risk bankruptcy and therefore need either an urgent injection of cash or a swift reopening of the sector, according to a recent analysis by law firm Graydon.

In recent weeks, Belgium’s Consultative Committee, which includes representatives of the country’s various governments, has been called upon to provide a timeline and solutions for the sectors that have been closed for more than three months.

The date for reopening the sector is not currently known, but several Belgian media have reported that the proposed date of 1 March seems a little premature.

However, on whether there are plans to introduce certificates or finance some practical solutions for the sector to re-open as soon as possible, a spokesperson for the Belgian economy ministry told EURACTIV that “for the moment, the matter is still under discussion on a political level”.

“To open in a sustainable way in the given circumstances isn’t easy. It doesn’t only come to money, but it can help,” Steven Rosseel from the Belgian Restaurant Association told EURACTIV.

“As long as the virus circulates on a large scale it will not be possible to reopen, therefore measures like revenue compensation (based on revenue so that there is a distinction between the scales of the enterprises) and unemployment aid help the sector to survive,” he added.

“At the moment that reopening the sector is possible, it is important that people feel safe in the sector, therefor (financial) aid in hygiene measures is welcome,” he said, adding that investment in COVID-19 track applications, aid to make table and space management possible (securing social distancing in rests and bars) and reducing VAT for clients to give an incentive to customers to visit the sector would be required.

“At the same time, there needs to be the possibility to take measures against clients that don’t follow the measures,” he added.

Asked whether a potential vaccination certificate (to enter a bar) would be an effective tool to re-open earlier, Rosseel said “it could be effective but is discriminatory towards people who did not yet have the chance to get a vaccine”.

“But once everybody can have the possibility to be vaccinated, it is worth considering,” he added.

“The vaccination should help get back to a sort of normal society in the coming half year, so better to invest in the transition period and then go as quick as possible in the normal market circumstances,” Rosseel said.

“The difficulty will lie in the balance of stopping the financial aid (re-opening the sector) and having enough of the population vaccinated,” he added.

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VIENNA | Second thoughts about digitisation

The Austrian government has not announced yet any schedule for reopening bars and restaurants, and current lockdown measures will be re-evaluated in mid-February. However, the gastronomy sector of  the chamber of commerce, Austria’s largest business association, is in constant exchange with the government, a spokesperson told EURACTIV Germany.

“This is vital, as the situation regarding the virus changes constantly”, said the association.

To support the industry, the ministry and the chamber co-developed templates for hygiene measures last year. The ministry of tourism expects that these will help restaurants and bars after the current lockdown, as they will be adapted according to the health ministries’ future regulations once they arrive. This will support businesses “in the best way possible”, a ministry spokesperson told EURACTIV Germany.

In terms of digital tools, the association expects that the innovative app-solutions for registering guests for the purpose of contact-tracing will play an important role when re-opening.

However, when talking to business owners on the ground, a different image emerges. Sascha Schlesig, owner of the century-old Viennese Café “Weimar”, believes that digitisation will not be as crucial. “Disinfecting and keeping a distance – there is not much more to it than that”, Schlesig told EURACTIV Germany.

Innovation is not on top of his mind at the moment, but rather the lack of certainty on a reopening date.

While he understands that the government is unable to predict the development of infections, he is disappointed by the support, or rather lack thereof, the gastronomy association gave their sector. There was no dedicated financial support for implementing hygiene measures, “they just handed us some masks, nothing else, which was ridiculous”, Schlesig said.

Upon request, the association stated that financial support to businesses was designed to be as broad as possible, reimbursing owners for their losses of revenue. Additionally, they received signs informing guests about the COVID-situation.

Neither the ministry nor the association can predict under which conditions businesses will be allowed to open their doors again, but they will be communicated to owners “as soon as possible”, said the chamber of commerce.

As long as this is the case, Schlesig does not plan any concrete steps. However, he plans to open his Café Weimar around Easter at the earliest, when guests are able to sit outside again, even if the lockdown should end earlier. He estimated that people will still not like sitting inside and he prefers to get the government money until that point.

On whether vaccinated people should access gastronomy businesses sooner, the association said that “it should not be the task of restaurant owners to check vaccine passports”.

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THE HAGUE | Innovation is a bottom-up approach

Sources in The Hague told EURACTIV that currently, the focus is on the vaccinations and containing the virus, before any discussion over reopening restaurants.

In the first wave, many innovations were used, from vertical terraces to bluetooth alarms to indicate staff are standing too close.

“But in the Netherlands, the culture is that entrepreneurs innovate these things themselves, bottom-up, rather than top-down,” sources said.

The same sources added that the government set the boundaries, and entrepreneurs innovate accordingly.

“For instance, protocols for restaurants are created by the sector itself, in consultation with governments and other relevant organisations”.


EUROPE’S SOUTH

MADRID | Fears for concentration of companies in the sector

The Spanish HORECA sector, mainly bars and restaurants, is focusing all its efforts on keeping businesses active and running relying on state aids, safety measures and creativity, as a recipe for overcoming the heavy economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Spain’s quasi federal state has been essential in helping to mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic in bars and restaurants. During the first state of alarm, decreed by the government in March of 2020, bars and restaurants were closed across the country and only delivery services were allowed.

Restaurants providing these services have since then put in place hygienic measures for their workers (masks, screens, cleaning…) and for home delivery (masks, safety distance, contactless delivery…).

When the state of alarm expired on 11 May 2020, bars and restaurants reopened, but were obliged to respect a four-stage plan designed by the government.

The four phases allowed only for a reduced capacity outside bars, a ban on consumption indoors, and a reduction of opening hours. Since then, regions in Spain have been adapting these rules to their specific health situations rather than a single national strategy coordinated by Madrid.

Bars and restaurants have installed, both for employees or customers, hydro-alcoholic gel, disinfection areas for shoes, distance between tables, screens, electronic menus, disposable materials, and a strict control in the use of public toilets, among other measures.

Companies in the sector also had to rely on public temporary lay-off schemes (Expedientes de Regulación de Empleo, ERTE, a public scheme to maintain 70% of the worker’s salaries for a limited period of time), as an emergency brake to stop the “bleeding” of jobs in the HORECA market.

The Spanish government, a coalition of the socialist party, PSOE, and left-wing Unidas Podemos/United We Can, approved a wide range of special economic measures for them on December 22, 2020.

However, the Spanish executive did not approve direct aid and instead, chose to offer a range of financial support measures, such as tax or rent reductions. The cost of the emergency plan is estimated at €4.22 billion, but most of the money corresponds to financial schemes. The only major item of aid is an increase in the reduction of personal income taxes.

But bars and restaurants consider that these measures were insufficient and called for other actions to boost the demand.

Despite the wide range of measures put in place by the government, the sector is in a “perfect (economic) storm”: in December alone, they lost around €6 billion, the Spanish HORECA sector reported.

And even if a lot of effort and creativity have been used, for example with the opening of new spaces and terraces, with digital menus, “take away” and “delivery” services, almost every day a bar or restaurant is forced to shut down in Spain as a collateral victim of the COVID-19 crisis.

Rumours circulate about a future massive concentration of companies in the sector, with a reduction in the number of small and medium-size bars, restaurants, and cafés, which could remain in the hand of very few powerful groups.

The most pessimistic outlook for the HORECA sector in Spain warns about the cut of 40% of the sector and the loss of around 400,000 jobs.

To be able to survive this financial ‘tsunami’, the sector pins its hopes on the €10 billion of the REACT-EU fund and is confident of a “fair” distribution by local governments and regions.

In addition to the direct aid, bars and restaurants will add their own sustainable projects and bet on digitalization to recover a sector that before the COVID-19 crisis accounted for 6.2% of Spain’s GDP and employed 1.7 million people. Laura Gema Cristóbal (Efeagro)

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LISBON | Portuguese associations: Customers won’t tolerate poorly ventilated environments

The hospitality sector in Portugal was allowed to reopen in May after the first lockdown after adopting some safety measures, such as decreasing the number of customers, or mandatory use of personal protective equipment.

Although it is uncertain when and under what conditions they will reopen, the two main associations that represent restaurant owners have some ideas.

“The government support must include the purchase of cleaning and disinfection products and personal protective equipment, as well as the performance of molecular tests (RT-PCR) or rapid antigen tests [for COVID-19]”, said the secretary general of the Portuguese Hotel, Restaurant and Similar Association (AHRESP), Ana Jacinto.

“For a minimum period of time (a few days), there was some support for the purchase of some products, but these did not reach all the companies that needed them, and today they spend thousands of euros every month to ensure that their employees are not infected”, she added.

Jacinto also highlighted the Clean & Safe seal, launched in May to ensure the establishments’ respect for health and safety rules and help consumers feel confident enough to return.

In order to reopen last May, some restaurants proactively developed apps to enable customers to access the menu on their smartphone and even place their order, thus reducing contact with materials that would be shared with other people and waitresses.

Now, in the middle of a second lockdown, the Portuguese Association of Hospitality, Catering and Tourism (APHORT,) believes it is necessary to “look at the organisation of space and ventilation”.

“Customers will certainly want more space and more distance, and they will be more intolerant in the face of crowded and poorly ventilated environments”, said APHORT’s executive president, André Condé Pinto.

APHORT also thinks it is relevant to reconsider the service, with “shorter and more flexible teams, who are prepared to serve in the room or at client’s home (through take-away), as well as adopting more careful procedures regarding the interaction with customers”.

André Condé Pinto believes it is time to “realise that each restaurant now has new rooms: the rooms of customers’ homes”. “In this context, the take-away and delivery services should now be seen as a structured and professionalised business area”, he added. (Maria João Pereira, Lusa.pt)


VISEGRAD

BRATISLAVA | Slovaks eye digital solutions

The Slovak platform #StáleMámeChuť (#WeStillHaveAppetite) brings together 13 associations and initiatives from gastronomy advocates for rather traditional assistance for the sector.

They would like to see red-tape free compensations schemes, loans guarantees, rent subsidies, VAT reduction or direct support in the form of vouchers – that has been applied in various EU countries with some success.

Lastly, they push for clear terms and requirements for reopening of restaurants, cafes, and pubs.

The Slovak Ministry of Transport, partially in charge of the agenda of the hospitality sector, has promised compensations worth €100 million, but faces some bottlenecks in processing the requests. No innovative solutions that would help build the resilience of the sector when faced with uncertain times are being discussed for the time being.

Still, the sector is looking into some digital solutions and measures that show some promise. “We live in an era of digital transformation, which is why it makes sense to make a full use of modern technology also in this situation,”  Magdalena Koreny, speaker for the initiative Help for Gastronomy (Pomoc pre gastro), told EURACTIV Slovakia.

She cited as an example the TrustOne system, already operational in Slovakia, that according to their website “enables organisations to automatise medical screening of their employees, guests, and passengers to mitigate the effects of Covid19”.

It consists of an app and a web-portal for employers with possible use in guest control – in culture, hospitality or sporting places. It enables people to present themselves with a negative test or vaccination wherever they go without the safety of their data being violated. It is already being used by persons entering the UK who wish to shorten their quarantine.

In Slovakia, it was rolled out after a successful pilot in the city of Nitra which had to undergo a mass testing as a result of a very high COVID-19 infections. The app replaced the need to carry a paper certificate confirming negativity in the antigen testing.

“Its main benefits are security, speediness, massive scalability and flexibility. It was already approved by the Public Health Authority and offers a return to a normal life,” says Koreny.

According to Henrich Simonics, executive of the company representing the TrustOne in Slovakia, they are confident the system could be helpful in restoring Slovakia’s economy, including getting restaurants up and running again.

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WARSAW | Prolonged ban has provoked protests

Restaurants, cafes and bars in Poland can currently serve guests only via “take-away” and home delivery. The ban on serving guests inside premises, introduced in October, will remain until the end of January, but it has already been extended several times.

However, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Wednesday (January 20) that in February it might be possible to resume serving guests inside. 

“Over the next 10 days, we want to develop pandemic protocols. In February – but it is difficult for me to say exactly from which date – we will try to implement these protocols,” he said, adding reservations that this can only happen if the number of new coronavirus infections and deaths is not significantly increasing.

In Poland, the prolonged ban on the regular operation of gastronomic premises has provoked protests. On Monday (January 18), a campaign was launched under the slogan #otwieraMY (“we are opening”), which aims to convince restaurateurs to open their premises despite the ban. As part of the campaign, a virtual map was also created, showing where gastronomic premises (as well as hotels or sports facilities) have already been opened.

The most determined are the owners of restaurants from the south of the country, especially from popular winter resorts in the mountains, who hoped that they would be able to resume full operation during the winter holidays.

The Minister of Development, Labour and Technology, Jarosław Gowin, threatened restaurateurs who break anti-epidemic restrictions with checks by the state sanitary inspection (Sanepid) or the police and issuing tickets, as well as by removing their companies from the government’s anti-crisis support programs.

Entrepreneurs have so far complained primarily about the lack of clear information and the extension of bans every two or three weeks. In such a situation, it is difficult for them to plan any long-term actions.

For the time being, the government has not disclosed what sanitary requirements gastronomy premises would have to meet in order to be able to serve guests at the tables again, but says it wants to consult on everything with the restaurateurs themselves. 

The solutions may include the introduction of a limit of people who can be served at the same time and maintaining 1.5 – 2-meter distance between the tables or installing shields made of plexiglass, while customers would be obliged to cover their nose and mouth at all times besides when they are eating. Tables and seats would be disinfected after each guest, and waiters would offer a disposable paper menu. Such rules were applied in Poland in late spring, summer and early autumn of 2020.

While restaurateurs have stated that they are ready to follow other sanitary restrictions or increased inspections of relevant services, if necessary, there is currently no information about additional government aid to cover the costs of adapting catering establishments to any new requirements.

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PRAGUE | Push to add hospitality sector to Czech national recovery plan

The Czech Industry and Trade Ministry responsible for compensation and support schemes has not published or communicated any support for a modern and sustainable way to re-open the hospitality sector. However, several ideas are emerging across the Czech Republic.

When it comes to new technologies, the digitisation of the hospitality sector is particularly important, according to the Czech Confederation of Commerce and Tourism.

“We are pushing the gastro sector investments to be included in the National Recovery plan in order to have the possibility to use these funding in its modernisation,” the president of the confederation, Tomáš Prouza, told EURACTIV.cz.

In the Czech Republic, there are already smart solutions on the table but they face a lack of support from the government. For instance, Care Plus Service introduced smart bracelets ensuring safe social distancing and case tracing that could be deployed by restaurants. Czech Chamber of Commerce is also promoting modern “Smart gates” that are able to measure the temperature and disinfect passing people.

However, their deployment in restaurants has not yet been properly explored by the government.

“Of course, such solutions are expensive and the state administration has so far denied to pay back the companies in this sense,” Prouza said.

According to him, clear information from the state about what should be done in order to open the restaurants is needed. “In this way, everyone could see that it makes sense to invest in such measures. Current restrictive measures do not motivate anybody to do anything,” Prouza said.

Still, Czech restaurants are trying to cope with this difficult situation.

“We launched the self-regulatory programme called “Bezpecna restaurace” (Safe restaurant), which suggests 6 rules on how to operate the gastro premise in a safe way. We had the ability to test it and had very positive results. We supported the campaign with social media and in-outlet consumer communication,” said Luboš Kastner, founder of the Czech Association of Restaurateurs (APRON).

“We need to demystify the cliches around the ‘toxicity‘ of gastro, we need to make it safe,” Kastner added.

“The problem is that we discuss too much and very little is happening, especially in the area of non-direct support, like technology subventions, marketing and capability development,” APRON founder Kastner told.

Kastner also pointed out that Czech restaurants were often depicted as subjects that breach the restrictions, but their guests show a high level of self-control and high level of hygienic measures maintenance.

Regarding vaccination certificates, the Czech Industry and Trade Minister Karel Havlíček admitted that it is the way to “keep trade and services alive”.

However, it is still not clear whether vaccinated people can spread the COVID-19 virus. The government is currently assessing this option with no clear results so far.

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BUDAPEST | The future of hygiene: ‘protective coatings’

Like elsewhere across Europe, the Hungarian hospitality sector is reeling from the effects of the government measures against the second wave of the pandemic, with restaurant turnover having decreased by 48.6%.

Yet, according to EURACTIV sources, there is no strategic plan to sustainably reopen the sector at the national level, beyond continuing wage subsidies until the vaccination campaign bears fruits. The Ministry for Innovation and Technology did not reply to our request for a comment.

This is despite the fact that home-grown innovative solutions abound. Resysten, a family-owned business based on Budapest, produces titanium dioxide-based self-disinfecting coating that stays effective for months, up to a year.

The odourless and colourless coating interacts with light, producing a reaction that destroys contamination.

Launched in 2014, the company grew from serving only the Hungarian market prior to the pandemic to selling their products in 35 countries, including overseas countries like the US and India.

“This is where the future of hygiene is — protective coatings, just like soap and water was the future of hygiene 100 years ago,” Shajjad Rizvi, head of international business development at Resysten, told EURACTIV.

The year also brought opportunities to test the product in new harsher conditions, such as the Budapest airport that used to handle 40,000 passengers daily by treating passenger security trays, arguably the riskiest items. Three months later the reduction in contamination was still at 99.6%.

Yet, the implementation of cleantech products like Resysten is not subsidised by the government for private businesses.

Rizvi said that while in some countries the company has heard that public grant plans for sanitising programs are in the pipeline, particularly the U.S., nothing has materialised yet in Hungary.

“In Hungary we haven’t heard of anything, in our home country,” Rizvi said.

“I just hope to God that these industries can be saved, and we can help in that. But I totally get it, they don’t have the money now to pay for it,” he added.

On 22 January, the government announced that plastic cards, which will serve as certificates of protection against the coronavirus, can be introduced within weeks in mid-February.

The authorities plan to give these both to the vaccinated and those who have already recovered from the disease.

However, the government has not yet decided what exemptions from measures the vaccination card will grant and whether these will help restaurants and bars reopen.


THE BALKANS

SOFIA | Bulgaria’s way out: Vaccinating staff and home deliveries with online menus

Рriority vaccination of all those employed in restaurant and tourism sectors before the start of the summer tourist season is the Bulgarian idea for overcoming the crisis in this industry.

Such proposal was made by the Ministry of Tourism. Minister Mariyana Nikolova explained that it was a way to assure the customers how secure the Bulgarian tourism was. So far, the idea has not been supported by health authorities.

With the limited number of vaccines available by mid-2021, the government wants to protect medical staff, security services and the elderly. Restaurants and the tourism industry are not a priority for the authorities in Sofia so far, EURACTIV Bulgaria has learned.

The chairman of the Bulgarian Restaurant Association, Richard Alibegov, commented that the state had abandoned this business. Neither the association nor the government is seriously discussing innovative forms of financial support for the sector.

The restaurants rely on a one-time subsidy of 20% of the turnover for the previous year of the closed restaurant. Employees must receive €12.5 for each day the restaurant is closed. Alibegov told EURACTIV Bulgaria that the government was not fulfilling its promises and that the promised money for the last three months had not been paid. This means that thousands of Bulgarians are left without income.

“We are left to fend for ourselves,” he said. The problem is double standards regarding restaurants. On 1 January, the government allowed hotel restaurants to operate at half capacity until 10:30 p.m. The goal was to save the season in the winter resorts. Restaurants outside hotels, however, remain closed without a clear timeline of opening. Alibegov says many of his colleagues will start working on 1 February, despite the bans.

The associations of the restaurants announced that it was organising a protest march on 27 January.

“Will they arrest us? Will they shoot us? What can you take from a person from whom you have already taken everything,” commented Alibegov, who owns a popular restaurant chain in Sofia. The already prepared plan for recovery from the economic crisis also does not pay attention to the restaurant sector and is not expected to be edited by April.

Food truck and home delivery

“It is finished with the biggest and the smallest in the restaurant business. The state has nothing to help with. The industry has to find its own way and it needs to restructure,” Nikola Barbov, who owns a small pizzeria in Sofia, told EURACTIV Bulgaria. His restaurant closed in mid-October before the government decided to close the sector. Barbov has assumed that the peak of the pandemic would not give him a chance to work.

Now he has decided to completely restructure his business. His idea is to focus on home delivery and a food truck that can travel around the city, selling quality beer and gourmet burgers outdoors. “No one will go to a restaurant in the company of 40 people anymore. It’s over. The smallest restaurants are over too. Many of them won’t open because they don’t have the money to open anymore. In a pandemic, you can’t do amateur business”, Barbob says.

Many restaurateurs see the future of their business in developing home deliveries with online menus. The price of good food delivered by a restaurant already competes with the price of quality food prepared at home. They focus on the use of disposable cutlery and plates because it inspires consumer confidence.

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BUCHAREST | Romania’s bars and restaurants see no light at the end of tunnel

Romanian hospitals have discovered a few patients with the UK coronavirus variant and the health ministry has asked local authorities to postpone any planned relaxation of restrictions.

But against these recommendations, the Bucharest Committee for Emergency Situations has decided to ease some of the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic, and restaurants, bars and cafés will be allowed to operate at maximum 30% of their indoor capacity.

While Europe is reinforcing restrictions, Bucharest is doing the opposite. But restaurants and cafes are still feeling they are largely ignored, at least when it comes to government support.

The permission to reopen in Bucharest came almost out of the blue after weeks of confusing signals from the government. The hospitality industry has insisted on a clear position on the reopening schedule and asked authorities to remove the link with the incidence rate, at least in big cities, said Razvan Crisan, a member in the board of HORA, the employers` association in the hospitality sector.

Economy minister Claudiu Nasui recently admitted that the state aid for restaurant operators was mostly blocked.

“We understand there is a mix of bureaucracy and change of government, but our question is very simple: Just as some fundamental rights were suspended in just a few days (during the state of emergency last spring – e.n.), the government can adopt some decrees to speed up payments to affected industries that have received almost nothing in terms of financial compensation since March,” Crisan said in an emailed response.

Authorities have announced several measures of support for companies affected by business closures, but most of them are still not functional or are too complex. Just a few of the measures were targeted specifically for restaurants, bars and cafes, and not even those were applied, said Crisan.

For example, the government proposed an exemption for a tax applied in the HORECA sector, but local governments “forgot” to enforce it. On the other hand, a scheme of grants to cover part of the difference between receipts in 2019 and 2020, requested by the hospitality industry, was adopted before the general elections on 6 December, but the new government has to draft the application norms, so the aid will probably reach the companies in the summer. 

Regarding support for reopening restaurants and similar outlets, Crisan said only the Kurzarbeit scheme (which allows companies to reduce working time, without significantly affecting employees’ pay) introduced last year could really help the hospitality industry in the coming months. But the scheme, which specifies the state covers a part of the salary, seems very complicated and it does not work particularly well, according to the HORA representative.

Meanwhile, in order to prepare the industry for the reopening, HORA has worked with several partners from the healthcare sector on a guide of good practices to help operators apply the rules in a correct and coherent way.

To rub salt in the wounds of the industry, after all the finger-pointing of last year, the hospitality sector was not deemed important enough to put its employees among those who can be vaccinated in the second phase.

“We, as an industry, strongly support the vaccination campaign and we were very disappointed that the staff working in HORECA was not included in the second stage of the vaccination campaign. Authorities pointed the finger at our industry constantly as an environment in which the virus is spreading and somehow the people working in the field were not considered essential so as to be included in this priority stage,” Crisan said. (Bogdan) Neagu

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ZAGREB | A post-pandemic staff shortage?

“We are aware of the problems that the food and drink service industry is facing but they can participate in the state aid program worth €700 million plus the subsidies for salaries up to 4,000 kunas (€550) per worker,” the Ministry of Tourism and Sports has announced.

The Ministry and the Croatian Chamber of Economy are satisfied with the falling number of infections and expect that, with a good percentage of vaccination, this vulnerable sector will be able to restart business as usual at some point in the near future.

When, though, it is still too early to say.

Both institutions are working on a security mark “Stay safe in Croatia” (mainly for tourists, but the Croatian catering sector is the part of the economy most dependent on tourism) that will give the guests – from Croatia or abroad – a kind of confirmation that they are entering the area that adheres to all epidemiological measures harmonised with the Croatian Institute of Public Health (disinfection, masks, distance etc). Issuance is planned for the beginning of February.

And, as the Chamber told EURACTIV.hr, “we believe that at this time there is no need to consider options of showing any type of vaccination certification” to enter restaurants, cafés or bars.

Representatives of the business sector emphasised that they are still in intensive discussions with the ministry regarding the hygienic and safety measures and they “believe that the final decisions will be in favour of the state and their budgets”.

The Ministry of Tourism said it hoped “the recovery of the tourism sector will certainly mean recovery for many other related activities such as hospitality. All our activities are aimed at restarting tourism and positioning Croatia as a safe and desirable destination.”

The National Association of Caterers is crying out for tax relief. This sector has 25% VAT, one of the highest in the EU, plus a consumption tax of 3%. Their first request and plea to the Government is the immediate reduction of VAT on coffee, beer, wine, beverages and juices to 13%.

And one of the biggest problems they wanted to draw attention to is that owners of coffee bars and restaurants are forced to watch their work done by shops, gas stations, bakeries, and newsstands, despite the fact that they can serve coffee and beverages in a far more organised and sanitary manner than any of the above mentioned.

Caterers are saying that, when they will open their businesses, they expect another problem: a shortage of workers because during the lockdown they experienced a drain of the workforce.


(Sarah Lawton, Philipp Grüll | EURACTIV.de, Louise Rozès Moscovenko | EURACTIV.fr, Bogdan Neagu | EURACTIV.ro, Zeljko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr, Krasen Nikolov | EURACTIV.bg, Vlagyiszlav Makszimov, Alexandra Brzozowski | EURACTIV.com, Aneta Zachova | EURACTIV.cz, Zuzana Gabrizova | EURACTIV.sk, Maria João Pereira | Lusa.pt, Laura Gema Cristóbal | Efeagro)

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[Edited by Sarantis Michalopoulos, Natasha Foote, Zoran Radosavljevic | EURACTIV.com]

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