Omicron silences Europe’s busy season


“You could tell Christmas was coming,” Amanda Whiteside, manager of Gordon’s Wine Bar in London, said of the crowd and the buzz. “And then it’s gone.”

Across Britain and other parts of Europe, new government restrictions combined with heightened anxiety over the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus have dramatically reduced activities in restaurants, pubs, event venues and stores, prompting urgent appeals for additional government assistance.

In Britain, the government responded on Tuesday by announcing £ 1bn ($ 1.3bn) in aid to the hospitality industry, with one-time grants of £ 6,000 and discounts for sick leave for employees. employees.

The additional aid has been pledged as a new wave of anxiety over the economy sweeps the region. In France, government ministers on Tuesday announced additional aid to the tune of 12 million euros for travel agencies, events, caterers and indoor leisure companies which are suffering large operating losses this month- this.

In Spain, the government has scheduled an emergency meeting with regional leaders on Wednesday to discuss whether to adopt new restrictions. The Italian government meets on Thursday.

“We are now in a different phase where the foreclosure will potentially be more costly,” said Claus Vistesen, chief eurozone economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. “Until now, we were used to blockages followed by government support. I think it will also be the case, but the support will be more conditional, less comprehensive than before.

Britain has recorded the highest number of Covid-19 cases in Europe in the past seven days, according to the World Health Organization.

On Monday, organizations representing more than 100,000 businesses across the country sent an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, demanding more tax breaks and subsidies to roll them back.

Such concerns have resonated elsewhere. In Germany, companies are pushing the government to lift new requirements that customers must show proof of recent vaccination or recovery. And in the Netherlands, where the government announced a lockdown over the weekend, calls to the country’s business register for help surpassed 400 on Monday – seven times the number on the previous Monday.

Although the wave of coronavirus cases caused by the fast-growing Omicron variant has yet to result in the type of strict lockdown imposed by the Dutch government, UK companies argue that the combination of mask warrants, vaccination requirements and uncertainty during the peak holiday season puts their survival at risk.

The retail, hospitality and entertainment industries “are on the brink,” said Matthew Sims, who helped orchestrate the campaign and heads a business improvement group in Croydon, south of. London.

Restaurants, pubs and bars have said that since the government added a new set of restrictions, known as Plan B, on December 8 in response to Omicron, cancellations have escalated and foot traffic has disappeared in some. regions.

At Gordon’s Wine Bar, it was common to find every table in its cave-like cellar and on its full outdoor patio and a long line of waiting customers. Then plan B was put in place.

The fall, said Ms. Whiteside, the administrative manager, “was very dramatic.”

Customers have cleared up and several staff members have contracted Covid, she said. Gordon’s now only offers outside services, and Whiteside estimates sales are down 25%.

Half a mile away in Soho, the Coach and Horses pub was also struggling with fewer patrons and sick staff. Last week, business was down by a third, while on Monday it fell “off the edge of a cliff,” said manager Alison Ross.

Three of the four full-time staff and two of the four part-time staff had contracted Covid.

The hospitality industry, which lost the holiday sales surge last year, was expecting a busy season this year.

Simon Emeny, managing director of Fuller, Smith & Turner, which owns around 400 pubs including Coach and Horses, said in a statement: “We’re back to where we were in March 2020 with the government keeping hospitality open. , while actually being telling the audience 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 sickness benefits for small and medium-sized businesses and supplement a cultural fund for organizations such as theaters, orchestras and museums, with an additional £ 30million.

Sectors not included in the package, there have been complaints.

“Travel agents, tour operators and travel management companies will rightly ask why they have not received the same treatment as other businesses who are suffering right now,” said ABTA, a trade association for travel agencies and tour operators.

In the Netherlands, where most shops, bars, restaurants, gyms, outdoor sports, cultural venues and schools are closed until January, some business owners fear they will never reopen.

“It’s something I wonder about every day,” said Omar Waseq, who owns a cheese bar and cinema café in central Utrecht. “I am not 100% sure. “

Mr Waseq estimated that he loses $ 50,000 every month while his cheese bar, Kaasbar Utrecht, is closed, and $ 100,000 at the cafe. Plans to rebuild a nightclub he owns that burned down in January have been postponed. He had to lay off most of his 80 employees and is now trying to make money selling mulled wine on the streets and door-to-door packages of cheese.

Mr Waseq said that since he opened his business after the start of the pandemic and had no 2019 sales to use as a benchmark comparison, he was not eligible for assistance government.

Ron Sinnige, spokesperson for the national business register, Kamer van Koophandel, said the agency was inundated with calls this week asking for financial help, advice or the winding up of their operations. Some were looking for advice on how to qualify as an essential business – could a clothing store sell candy and soda, could a beauty salon offer post-surgical massages, or list Botox injections as a medical procedure? ?

The questions were a sign of people’s creativity and desperation, Sinnige said. “Unlike previous blockages, people are really at the end of their financial and emotional flexibility,” he said.

France has canceled a holiday menu and banned British tourists, a blow to the ski industry.

On Tuesday, the Swedish government imposed new restrictions, including allowing only customers seated in restaurants and bars to be served.

Ireland has imposed an early 8 p.m. curfew on restaurants and bars that began on Monday, while limiting attendance at events.

In Denmark, restaurants and bars must stop serving alcohol after 10 p.m., and a list of venues and event spaces, including theaters, museums, zoos, concert halls and Tivoli, the park iconic Copenhagen attractions, has been closed.

Switzerland’s restrictions that ban unvaccinated people from going to restaurants, gyms and museums are expected to last until January 24.

In Germany, the store check-in process, which requires stopping everyone at the door and asking to see the vaccination certificate and ID, deterred shoppers in what would normally be the peak period. busiest of the year, said the German Trade Association.

Retailers surveyed by the group reported a 37% drop in sales compared to Christmas 2019.

“After months of closures, the restrictions are once again bringing many retailers to the brink of their existence,” said Stefan Genth, head of the Trade Association.

A northern Lower Saxony state court last week dismissed the restrictions there, after department store chain Woolworth challenged them on the grounds that they were not applied fairly and that requiring buyers to wear masks offered sufficient protection. Thursday’s decision raised hopes that other states would follow suit, giving last-minute shoppers a final boost.

“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 reports.


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