The long-awaited announcement that Belgium’s bars and restaurants can reopen their terraces from May 8th is enormously welcome.
The phased reopening of crucial parts of Belgian society and the gradual lifting of restrictions comes at a time of growing optimism. After enduring so much over the last year, people across Europe will soon be able to get back to meeting friends, visiting shops or going to the hairdresser. And one thing which I know millions of Europeans are eagerly awaiting is their return to socialising in bars and restaurants.
There is no doubt that Europe’s hospitality sector has suffered huge damage due to Covid. The long period of lockdown has meant that tens of thousands of businesses have been closed for months and hundreds of thousands of workers have been left unemployed.
According to recent estimates, most of Belgium’s bars and restaurants are now struggling to remain afloat. Belgium’s economy shrank significantly in 2020. Given the vital role which the hospitality sector plays in boosting the broader economy (every €1 spent in hospitality results in €2.16 being invested in the wider economy), policymakers need to make a special effort to revitalise the ailing sector.
The reopening of terraces can thus only be considered as the first step towards a full and safe reopening of the sector, and political leaders need to do all they can to assist in making this process a sustainable success.
Those countries which have been the most successful in vaccinating their populations have already shown how the reopening process can best be pursued. Restaurants, bars and other indoor venues began to reopen in Israel in March. Elsewhere, Britain’s outdoor terraces and pubs gardens recently reopened and plans are in place to allow indoor dining and drinking by mid-May, and to lift additional restrictions the following month.
It is not enough to simply call for restrictions to be lifted, however. Vigilance and smart concepts are needed to minimize the potential risk of future Covid resurgences, and all parts of society need to keep working together to achieve that goal. That means that we need to put robust, yet viable protocols in place across the hospitality sector. Outdoor spaces are far safer and present a low risk of Covid transmission, but we also know from the available scientific evidence that there are practical steps at hand which can greatly help to reduce transmission risk in indoor areas, too.
Key to this is improving ventilation. Over the last year, we have learned more and more about how Covid is spread by aerosol-based transmission, and this evolving evidence has resulted in leading health bodies calling for the prioritisation of better ventilation. By monitoring air quality, using CO2 monitors, and using ventilation or UVC lighting equipment to replenish the clean air supply indoors, or simply by opening more doors and windows, we can radically reduce the risk of transmission. At the same time, additional steps need to be taken to improve meaningful public health messaging, provide enhanced training to hospitality staff, and ensure that rules and protocols are properly enforced and regularly reviewed based on the latest scientific data.
All of this will require financial investments; small businesses which have been crippled by lockdown restrictions are not in a position to stem these costs on their own.
Nor should they have to.
The EU’s €750 billion Recovery Fund was established to revive Europe’s economy and fuel its long-term recovery. In order for it to succeed, it is absolutely vital that struggling small to medium-sized enterprises like bars and restaurants can access support. In line with this, European hospitality association HOTREC has underlined the need for the EU and Member States to prolong European and national funding schemes for hospitality businesses. They are essential tools to help venues avoid excessive debt levels, continue to secure workers’ incomes and support up-skilling and reskilling of staff.
EU decision-makers have duly acknowledged this –Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton called for the Recovery Fund to be used to help the tourism sector to “emerge more resilient,” while Jobs Commissioner Nicolas Schmit said in January that “[h]ospitality should be at the heart of national recovery plans.”
We in spiritsEUROPE have worked hard to support the hospitality sector in its hour of greatest need, and we stand ready to do much more as we move forward. As Belgium’s residents get ready for a well-deserved moment of shared celebration on terraces nationwide, it is time for all stakeholders to plan well for the months ahead, to ensure that the full reopening is a safe, sustained and successful one.