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02.06.2020 Europe

Many French restaurants hesitate about reopening after Covid-19

By Mike Woods - RFI
© Reuters/Christian Hartmann
LISTEN JUN 2, 2020
© Reuters/Christian Hartmann

Restaurants opened around France on Tuesday for the first time since shutting their doors due to the Covid-19 epidemic in March. But in one of the sectors hit hardest by the lockdown, many are unsure whether they are better off reopening at all. 

Owners of the restaurant Le Grand Bain, on a side street of the Belleville neighbourhood in eastern Paris, decided not to get back to business on Tuesday. 

They cite several reasons, from considerations for the 10 temporarily laid-off staff to doubts about the profitability. Ultimately, it comes down to too much uncertainty. 

“The conditions for reopening are still too blurry for me,” said owner Edouard Lax, who has found little reassurance in the government's handling of the epidemic since abruptly ordering restaurants to close on 15 March.

“During Covid, the government made many announcements and you would hear a lot of things, but then you're never sure until it's made into a law,” he said.

Outdoor service only
Unlike those in the rest of mainland France, which were able to open in full  on Tuesday, restaurants are only able to offer outdoor spaces in the Paris region because health authorities consider the area vulnerable to an upsurge in new cases of Covid-19.

Restaurants with large terraces are better equipped to adapt, but not all locations have access to outdoor space. 

Le Grand Bain bases its model on a long evening service of 38 seats at tables and another 10 at the bar. It did not use the small sidewalk space outside the building before lockdown, in part to keep peace with neighbours.

City officials have not allowed the street to be closed to set tables, meaning only the narrow sidewalk would be available, but Lax has not jumped at the opportunity.

“If I stick to the size of the restaurant and putting tables in front with a metre between each, that's three tables. It would be from 7 to 10 pm, which is one service and a half,” he said. 

“We could extend farther, but we try to create an atmosphere. If we sit someone 20 metres away from the restaurant, what experience are they getting?”

Restaurants face uncertain recovery
France's restaurant owners have a long road ahead as they recover from a lockdown that put some 90 percent of staff out of work and reduced activity to nearly zero. 

“They can reopen, but economically, it will not be profitable,” Didier Chenet, president of the GNI union of hotel and restaurant owners, told AFP Agency. 

GNI conducted a survey in April that found 17 percent of restaurant owners were not planning to open, some closing for good and others preferring to wait. 

“Many of my clients are asking whether to reopen or not,” said Lila Djellali, a consultant in launching environmentally-friendly restaurants. “It's not profitable, it's complicated, and they're discouraged. In short, they can't imagine it working well.” 

Restaurants constrained by reduced hours
Djellali says the city's provisions to set out tables on sidewalks and some streets do not provide as much relief for restaurants as they do for bars, due to the requirement of closing at 10 pm. 

“Restaurants will only be able to take orders until 9 pm, meaning it's only possible to do one full round of service,” Djellali said. 

“For a restaurant to be profitable, there have to be two rounds of service. It's not possible if revenue is cut in half.” 

Djellali cites difficulties with insurance companies and in accessing state-guaranteed loans as other complicating factors.

She has urged the government to continue offering furloughs to laid-off workers until December. 

At Le Grand Bain, Lax wants to see if the Paris region becomes a green zone when the government activates the next phase of its post-epidemic plan on 22 June. 

That would be a green light for restaurants to relaunch indoor spaces, which, in the case of Le Grand Bain, would be more of a return to normal. Until then, Lax says he prefers to wait. 

“I'd rather not reopen too fast, bringing people out of unemployment and then not having enough business,” he added.

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