Omicron Is Turning Europe’s Busy Season Silent
European businesses are demanding government help, again, as another virus surge is driving customers away.,
European businesses are demanding government help, again, as another virus surge is driving customers away.
“You could feel Christmas was coming,” Amanda Whiteside, a manager at Gordon’s Wine Bar in London, said of the crowds and buzz. “And then it was gone.”
Throughout Britain and in other parts of Europe, new government restrictions combined with heightened anxiety over the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus have drastically reduced business at restaurants, pubs, event venues and stores, prompting urgent calls for additional government assistance.
In Britain, the government responded Tuesday, announcing 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) in aid for the hospitality industry, with one-time grants of ?6,000 and rebates for employees’ sick leave.
The additional assistance was promised as a fresh wave of anxiety over the economy washes over the region. In France, government ministers announced Tuesday additional aid up to 12 million euros for travel agencies, events, caterers and indoor leisure companies that suffer big operating losses this month.
“We are in a different phase now where lockdown will be potentially more costly,” said Claus Vistesen, chief eurozone economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. “Up until now, we’ve been used to lockdowns followed by support from the government. I think that will be the case as well, but support will be more conditional, less comprehensive than before.”
Britain recorded the highest number of Covid-19 cases in Europe over the last seven days, according to the World Health Organization.
On Monday, organizations representing more than 100,000 businesses around the country sent an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, demanding more tax relief and grants to tide them over.
In the Netherlands, where most shops and restaurants are closed through January, some business owners fear they may never reopen.Credit…Peter Dejong/Associated Press
Such concerns were echoed elsewhere. In Germany, businesses are pressing the government to lift new requirements that customers must show proof of vaccination or recent recovery. And in the Netherlands, where the government announced a lockdown over the weekend, calls to the nation’s business registry asking for help climbed past 400 on Monday — seven times the number logged the previous Monday.
Although the surge of coronavirus cases brought on by the fast-moving Omicron variant has not yet resulted in the kind of strict lockdown imposed by the Dutch government, British businesses argue that the combination of mask mandates, vaccination requirements and uncertainty during the peak holiday season imperils their survival.
The retail, hospitality and leisure sectors “are teetering on the brink,” said Matthew Sims, who helped orchestrate the campaign and leads a business improvement group in Croydon, south of London.
Restaurants, pubs and bars have said that since the government added a new series of restrictions, known as Plan B, on Dec. 8 as a response to Omicron, cancellations have been rolling in and foot traffic has disappeared in some areas.
At Gordon’s Wine Bar, it was common to find every table in its cavelike cellar and on its outdoor patio full and a long line of customers waiting. Then Plan B was put in place.
The drop-off, said Ms. Whiteside, the administrative manager, “was very dramatic.”
Customers thinned out, and several staff members got Covid, she said. Gordon’s is now offering only outside service, and Ms. Whiteside estimates that sales are down 25 percent.
Half a mile away, in Soho, the Coach and Horses pub was similarly contending with fewer customers and sick staff. Last week, business was off by a third, while on Monday it fell “off the edge of a cliff,” said Alison Ross, the manager.
Three of the four full-time staff members and two of the four part-timers had contracted Covid.
The hospitality industry, which lost out on the holiday bump in sales last year, was counting on a busy season this year.
Simon Emeny, the chief executive of Fuller, Smith & Turner, which owns roughly 400 pubs including the Coach and Horses, said in a statement: “We are right back to where we were in March 2020 with the government keeping hospitality open, while effectively telling the public not to socialize.”
The company has temporarily closed 20 pubs, a spokeswoman said.
About 200,000 hospitality and leisure businesses will be eligible for the new grants. The government will also cover the cost of legally required sick pay for small and midsize businesses and is topping up a culture fund for organizations including theaters, orchestras and museums, with another ?30 million.
From sectors not included in the package, there were complaints.
At the airport in Paris. France has canceled a menu of year-end celebrations and barred tourists from Britain, a blow to the ski industry.Credit…Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters
“Travel agents, tour operators and travel management companies will rightly be asking why they haven’t been given the same treatment as other businesses that are suffering at this time,” said ABTA, a trade association of travel agencies and tour operators.
In the Netherlands, where most shops, bars, restaurants, gyms, outdoor sports, cultural venues and schools are closed through January, some business owners fear they may never reopen.
“That is something that I ask myself every day,” said Omar Waseq, who owns a cheese bar and film cafe in the center of Utrecht. “I’m not 100 percent sure.”
Mr. Waseq estimated that he is losing $50,000 each month while his cheese bar, Kaasbar Utrecht, is shuttered, and $100,000 at the cafe. Plans to rebuild a nightclub he owns that was burned in a fire in January have been postponed. He has had to let go most of his 80-person staff and is now trying to make money selling mulled wine in the streets and cheese packages door to door.
Mr. Waseq said that because he opened his business after the pandemic began and did not have 2019 sales to use as a benchmark comparison, he was not eligible for government assistance.
Ron Sinnige, a spokesman for the national business registry, the Kamer van Koophandel, said the agency was flooded with calls this week asking about financial assistance, advice or liquidating their operations. Some were seeking guidance on how to qualify as an essential business — could a clothing store sell candy and soda, could a beauty salon offer postsurgical massages or list Botox injections as a medical procedure?
The questions were a sign of people’s creativity and despair, Mr. Sinnige said. “As opposed to previous lockdowns, people are really at the end of their financial flexibility and emotional flexibility,” he said.
France has canceled a menu of year-end celebrations and barred tourists from Britain, a blow to the ski industry.
On Tuesday, the Swedish government imposed some new restrictions that included allowing only seated customers to be served in restaurants and bars.
Ireland imposed an early curfew of 8 p.m. on restaurants and bars that began on Monday, while limiting attendance at events.
In Denmark, restaurants and bars must cut off serving alcohol after 10 p.m., and a slate of venues and event spaces including theaters, museums, zoos, concert halls and Tivoli, Copenhagen’s landmark amusement park, have been closed.
Switzerland’s restrictions that bar unvaccinated people from going to restaurants, gyms and museums are expected to last until Jan. 24.
In Berlin, the check-in process at stores requires stopping everyone at the door and asking to see vaccination certification and an ID.Credit…Michael Sohn/Associated Press
In Germany, the check-in process at stores, which requires stopping everyone at the door and asking to see vaccination certification and an ID, was deterring shoppers at what would normally be the busiest time of the year, the German Trade Association said.
Retailers surveyed by the group reported a 37 percent drop in sales from Christmas 2019.
“After months of lockdowns, the restrictions are once again bringing many retailers to the edge of their existence,” said Stefan Genth, head of the Trade Association.
A court in the northern state of Lower Saxony last week threw out the restrictions there, after the Woolworth department store chain challenged them on grounds that they were not fairly applied and that requiring shoppers to wear masks provided sufficient protection. The ruling on Thursday raised hopes that other states would follow its lead, giving a final boost to last-minute shoppers.
“Last weekend was better, but overall the shopping season has been more than depressing,” said Mark Alexander Krack, head of the Lower Saxony Trade Association.
Eshe Nelson contributed reporting.