This article is part of our special report From surviving to thriving: preparing for the future of the hospitality sector.
Despite significant findings about the dynamics of the pandemic, the policy strategy for combating infections remains the same with regards to the hospitality sector: close and compensate. It is time to think about innovative approaches to keep hundreds of thousands of businesses across Europe afloat without compromising on public health.
Eric Poirier is Member of the Board of METRO AG, international food wholesaler specialised in serving the needs of customers in the hospitality sector.
This Christmas holiday is going to be a different one. Many of us will meet our families again, many others, instead, will stay at home and avoid travelling. But in many cities across Europe, there is something we will all miss: that meal with our relatives in our favourite restaurant where we meet for every Christmas, that drink with our friends at the bar close by. Because gastronomy is a fundamental part of our European identity. A sector made up of hundreds of thousands of small restaurants and cafés livening up our cities, giving colour and taste to our daily lives, and contributing decisively to local economy.
The current pandemic has inflicted a huge damage to the hospitality sector. However, we are still in time to avoid a wave of bankruptcies across Europe. But only if we dare to think out of box and look for innovative solutions to guarantee safety while keeping the economy alive.
After the first wave of the pandemic in spring, restaurateurs across Europe implemented all the hygiene and safety standards to protect their customers and employees. Many of them went the extra mile and made considerable investments: setting up plexiglas solutions to separate tables, the installation of air filters, or the purchase of outdoor heaters to keep terraces open longer… However, when the second wave of infections arrived, they all had to close again.
In several countries, politicians decided to close restaurants while keeping other areas of life open. However, this may have had the opposite effect by shifting contacts from restaurants, where safety measures can be controlled and enforced, to the private space, where most infections happen. Many opportunities have been missed here.
We are convinced that a restaurant, professionally adapted for the coronavirus situation, is the best and safest place to meet people, and that these such get-togethers are essential for a functioning, healthy society. Therefore, we want the food service industry to be recognised as a partner that should be involved in the effort to curb the pandemic, rather than being stigmatised as an adversary.
A clear roadmap is needed, outlining how the hospitality sector can become part of the fight against COVID-19. This roadmap must be underpinned by a commitment to strengthen reliability for businesses, public authorities at all levels of government and citizens. Without financial help, millions of businesses could not have made it until now. However, we need to move beyond partial compensation.
Instead of spending more and more public funds to compensate for the economic damage, gastronomy businesses should be supported in their efforts to achieve safety through clear and predictable political communication combined with financial assistance. The scale of savings that can be achieved by creating safety is enormous.
For example, a recent study by the University of the German Army in Munich examined the relevant protective effect of air filters in combination with plexiglas panes in restaurants, offices, and classrooms, and proved that they vastly reduce the risk of direct and indirect infection. The study is right to criticise the fact that these tools are currently being neglected in terms of funding. The lack of communication from policymakers concerning effectiveness of innovative tools and their failure to send positive messages to encourage greater investment among restaurateurs in innovations that support public health are just as serious.
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.
In concrete terms, governments should encourage ventilation solutions and plexiglas panes. There is yet unseized potential when it comes to digital tools that allow contact traceability. Moreover, an official certification for catering establishments on COVID-19 protection measures would strengthen safety, reliability, and trust for restaurateurs, public and policymakers. Self-certification schemes could be also explored.
This approach would constitute an important alternative to the current policy of closing businesses. The Christmas season, so fundamental for the hospitality industry, to a great extent is lost now. However, the new year – starting hopefully with stabilized infection rates that give more room for elaborating viable approaches – offers us the possibility to start afresh and encourage and implement consequent business-friendly safety concepts. This is fundamental to the survival of thousands of businesses across Europe.
As a place where people come together and enjoy, restaurants will remain a central part of our social lives in the “post-Corona” world, I am absolutely convinced of this. It is now the time to put the right policies in place to make it possible.
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