Restaurants “won’t be viable” under strict new Covid rules

Due to open on Monday, thousands of restaurants are between a rock and a hard place. They can’t afford to stay shut, but they also can’t afford to reopen. And with all the Covid rules lined up against the normal workings of the sector, owners cannot see how their businesses can remain viable. Worst case scenario puts 80,000 jobs at risk.

This truly dismal picture is one becoming more and more apparent as Portugal opens up for business.

Offering little joy this week, prime minister António Costa has said he is well-aware of the pain, “but there is no other way”.

Even worse, government credit lines are fast approaching their maximum limits (see below).

The mounting awfulness of the situation started to crystalise last week as DGS health chiefs outlined ‘the new normal’ for restaurants – most of which have been shuttered since March.

True, some have made a little money from selling take-aways but, for most, business evaporated two months ago and there has been no money coming in since.

Now these businesses have to reopen – armed to reduce any chance of virus propagation; saddled with a list of demands that makes the head spin – and aware that even if clients jump at the chance to start dining out again, businesses can only ever make 50% of what they used to as the number of tables and clients that can be seated at any one time has been dramatically limited.

The way ahead “will make businesses unviable”, Ana Jacinto, secretary general of AHRESP, the association of restaurants and catering establishments explains. If new cash support isn’t offered, she can’t see how her sector will survive.

As to all the new rules, AHRESP’s fears are that “within a month, businesses may not have the money to pay wages in full or pay their suppliers”, which threatens the sector’s 80,000 ‘direct’ jobs.

But as AHRESP pushes the government for answers – either in the form of subsidies, or dramatic reduction in IVA (from the current 23% to 6%), it’s clear restaurants are not the only businesses staring bankruptcy in the face.

Gyms, bars and discotheques haven’t even got their reopening dates yet – and all are painfully aware that even when they do, demands placed on them may be just too much to cope with.

DGS health authority ‘orientation’

The new day-to-day for restaurants will involve disinfecting premises “at least six times a day”. Staff will have to wear masks and gloves – there is even the demand that staff change their gloves whenever leaving a ‘dirty area’ of the establishment for a ‘clean area’.
Menus – when not clearly displayed on blackboards – are to be disinfected after every use or, better still, sent to clients’ mobile phones. There is to be “no touching of surfaces or unnecessary objects” (meaning tables will have to be left undecorated) and electronic payments are to be encouraged over the use of cash.

To begin with, restaurants are being encouraged to use their outside spaces as much as possible.

Buffets will be ‘out’ as they involve too many people touching too many common items and the requirement for social distancing will be paramount.

Even for going to the rest rooms, clients will have to follow a ‘circuit’ that reduces their proximity to other diners.

How these demands can sit within a sector that calls itself ‘hospitality’ is anyone’s guess. If asked honestly, most would say they can’t.

PM laments limitations “will cause discomfort”

Prime minister António Costa has stressed Portugal’s ‘new normal’ will cause pain, but that there is no other way.

Talking in the context of the signing of a declaration of commitment for economic recovery – and a cooperation protocol between AHRESP and the DGS health authority – Mr Costa said: “It’s impossible to go back to business without limitations” that “cause discomfort”.

“We have to be frank,” he addressed journalists in Palácio da Ajuda. It will be very difficult to open restaurants under all the conditions set out by DGS health authorities, “but living with the virus implies living with many limitations”.

These limitations are “essential for citizens to have confidence” and this confidence is “fundamental in order to establish the whole economic chain”.

But as Mr Costa spoke against the background of developing panic in the marketplace, crèches were decrying the “absolute brutality” of DGS health orientation for their very specific sector.

Educators are refusing point blank to ‘segregate’ children, deny them the ability to play together or share toys, saying to do so would be a ‘violent attack’ on the children’s development as healthy human beings.

So often during this crisis, Portugal has been singled out for having done things cleverly; for having acted in time and been socially inclusive. But this is still a poor country: the amount of State help available is extremely limited, as is any leeway afforded by this virus.

PM Costa admitted this week, the government is already approaching the maximum limit of credit lines available. Unemployment is no longer at the enviable 6.4% it was at in February; the economy is not growing as it was. In short, we’re all up against a rock and a hard place – and this is only phase two of Portugal’s return to work. Phase three comes in June, at which point no doubt other sectors will be saying: “We need more help.”