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Latest Covid measures deal new blow to hospitality sector

Portugal’s State of Calamity took on even further calamitous proportions last Thursday when the government announced new measures that effectively dropped a neutron bomb on the battered hospitality sector.

With 60 boroughs, including large swathes of the Algarve, considered ‘high risk’ or ‘very high risk’ for transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the new rules essentially make restaurant interiors ‘no go’ areas at weekends for anyone who doesn’t have a Covid Digital Certificate, or who can’t present a valid negative test for the virus.

Almost overnight from Thursday, hotels, hostels and AL (short-term rental) properties were told they couldn’t accept any guests who couldn’t satisfy these requirements – at any point in the week (not just weekends).

With cafés and ‘pastelarias’ exempt from the new regulations (no explanation given as to why), the only concession seemed to be that restaurant terraces are not bound by the new rules, and the rules do not apply during weekdays.

In other words, the virus is only considered a problem in restaurant interiors from 3.30pm on Fridays to 10.30pm on Sunday nights (at which point people have to leave in order to abide by the 11pm ‘curfew’).

It also doesn’t ‘attack’ when people eating on restaurant terraces enter the premises to use WC facilities or to pay (suitably wearing face masks).

During his regular television slot on SIC on Tuesday evening, Portuguese lawyer and commentator José Miguel Júdice quipped that there should have been a teletext running under the government’s announcement querying: “Are there lunatics in government?”

The new measures are “absolutely absurd”, he told news anchor Clara de Sousa – particularly as they come at a point when irrespective of the rise in the number of positive cases, the situation in hospitals and intensive care units is light years away from the horrors of last winter.

Portugal’s beleaguered restaurant sector wholeheartedly agrees with him. It has called for the government to “immediately suspend” the regulations governing restaurants, while in the Algarve, hoteliers and indeed local politicians have dubbed the new approach “overkill”, “impractical” and “of dubious efficacy”.

More to the point, businesses themselves appear to have decided “enough is enough”. The latest resolution from the Council of Ministers insists that they themselves have to ‘police’ the regulations. For restaurants, this means an employee at the door has to watch over clients if they want to present negative auto-tests – the idea being these tests have to be performed before the client can sit at a table.

One AL owner the Resident spoke with last Friday told us she had purchased 10 auto-tests for the weekend to put in clients’ rooms “they can stay there all summer, for all I care”, she said. “I may use a grapefruit for the test, I may use my cat. As I am meant to be policing this ridiculous measure, I will be the one to decide how I carry out these tests…”

The woman who survives on what she makes from renting out holiday rooms had been fielding panicked calls from clients all day worried that they would have to cancel.

And this is the next point in the “lunacy”. The proviso that people could present negative tests to satisfy the new rules was semi useless as no pharmacies were available to carry out those tests.

Said Expresso last Friday, hours before the rules came into force: “It’s almost impossible to book a test in time for this weekend…” Hence the panicked phone calls, and the ‘solutions’ reached by businesspeople utterly exhausted by the government’s constantly changing goal posts.

Said one, “we wait in trepidation every Thursday, to hear what next crazy plan they come up with”.

In Porto, for instance, Nuno Fontes of Capa Negra II (one of the best-known eateries for the city’s legendary delicacy the “francesinha”) agreed wholeheartedly with José Miguel Júdice. The rules are “lunatic”. His father Amândio told tabloid Correio de Manhã: “So I am meant to check clients as they come into the restaurant? I am not a doctor! I am not a nurse! I am not a policeman! I am not going to comply. I don’t have specialised personnel.”

In the Algarve, one bar popular with expats and holidaymakers posted online: “We will NEVER ask anybody for a Covid test result or proof of vaccine … NEVER! It is none of our business and goes against our clients’ human rights. We will not be party to society’s descent into fascism and apartheid.”

And this is where things start to run off the rails. Is this level of control even legal?

High court judge Florbela Sebastião e Silva has penned a scathing post over social media to confirm that it most definitely isn’t. Unless the country is in a State of Emergency, these impositions on people’s lives and businesses are unconstitutional (click here).

Thus, the government is on uncertain ground. Has it got enough ASAE (health and safety) inspectors to ‘police’ its policies in restaurants, hotels and AL accommodation? Will police have to be drafted in to check citizens either have vaccines (which are not mandatory anyway) or have taken tests in the fashion stipulated that have given negative results? If the latter, how will they be able to tell?

The unpopular ‘Lisbon lockdown’ lasted three weeks and was scrapped last Thursday because ministers accepted it had failed in its mission (to try and ‘lock’ the Delta variant into the capital).

On that basis, it is just possible that this unpopular restaurant/hotel decree will also be short-lived, incapable of any notable achievement.

But the damage it has done, and will continue to do in the meantime, is incalculable.

The trouble with these measures is that if one looks at graphs highlighted on late-night television shows like “As Causas” on SIC with José Miguel Júdice, they are “simply not justified”.

In his Tuesday night session, the commentator showed that notwithstanding the number of new cases of the virus in this latest wave, numbers in hospital and in intensive care units are the lowest they have been since the first wave.

“There is no reason for this panic,” he stressed. “But the government is terrified. It is terrified about these infections, which are very light in the majority of cases. It has the elections coming up – and because it can’t attack during the week, when people have to get to and from work, it has decided to attack people’s leisure.

By maintaining panic, it believes people won’t leave their homes” and thus numbers of new infections should drop in time for the country’s next date with the ballot box.

José Miguel Júdice’s opinion is that the government is much too beholden to the opinion of ‘experts’ (epidemiologists/virologists/mathematicians) who predict “even greater tragedies” on the way when it is already clear the vaccines are breaking the link between infections and serious consequences.

Bottom line, he stressed, in the last five months, 402 people have died in Portugal from/with Covid-19, while over 50,000 have died from other causes. “But no one ever mentions these…”

Covid is not the social or sanitary problem it is being made out to be, he insists. But a cock-eyed agenda seems set to continue screaming exactly the opposite.

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