Covid-19 regional roundup: Europe, Africa, Middle East

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The foodservice industry across EAME has taken a huge hit during lockdown, but there may be light at the end of the tunnel as restrictions begin to ease

Countries across the Europe, Africa and Middle east (EAME) region have taken varying approaches to lockdown; how quickly it was introduced, how strictly measures were enforced and the gradual lifting of restrictions.

As many now embark on the early phases of easing lockdown, the foodservice industry is gearing up to welcome guests back onto premises.

But for some countries this step is still a long way off – with the industry and its workforce facing severe hardship – begging the question, will it be too little too late?

Collateral damage

The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been severe and widespread. Immediately affected by social distancing measures and further curbed by lockdown, the foodservice industry is no exception.

While some restaurants have successfully implemented take-out and delivery services, many others have been forced to shut their kitchens, close their doors and lay off staff.

“The majority of the foodservice industry has been impacted by the continued lockdown, with the exception of hospitals and care homes. Staff catering and school meals have been dramatically reduced, and visitor attraction and retail catering closed,” says consultant Matthew Merrit-Harrison FCSI, chair of FCSI UK & Ireland.

In Europe, many restaurants and foodservice businesses have been able to take advantage of relief packages to support them through the crisis and pay furloughed workers. But with revenue for hotels and restaurants across the EU expected to drop by 50%, many are unlikely to survive.

A survey by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry found that 70% of businesses in Dubai will be forced to close in the next six months and nearly half of all restaurants will shut their doors for good.

Much of Egypt’s hospitality sector is served by informal workers, who have no social benefits or labour protections. They have been promised support of 500 Egyptian pounds (£25) a month for three months during the crisis, but reports suggest many are yet to receive it.

In South Africa, Wendy Alberts, head of the Restaurant Association of SA, says hundreds of thousands of restaurant workers have been left jobless and starving, with no support from government. The association is now taking the government to court on its decision to limit restaurants to delivery-services only.

Lifting lockdown

In a bid to boost economy and get businesses up and running again, lockdown measures are slowly being lifted, allowing cafes, bars and restaurants to reopen providing they can operate within social distancing guidelines.

Austria and Germany were among the first to allow foodservice to reopen, requiring diners to leave their contact details with restaurants so they can be easily traced if there is an outbreak. Italy and Spain were quick to follow suit, with many restaurants in Rome installing plexiglass dividers between tables to ensure social distancing. 

In the Netherlands, restaurants and bars are expected to reopen for up to 30 people on 1 June. This follows trials in Amsterdam that saw canal-side restaurant Mediamatic sit guests in individual glass houses, served by waiters wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) using long wooden boards to deliver food and drink at a safe distance.

In France, guests will be able to return to cafes and restaurants from 2 June, though temporary restrictions will apply for some areas, such as Paris, where only terraces will be allowed to reopen.

Sweden remains one of the only European countries to have never entered lockdown. Its strategy relies on people taking personal responsibility for their welfare. Foodservice establishments have been able to remain open throughout the crisis, though five bars and restaurants in Stockholm were forced to close at the end of April due to overcrowding.

The UK, which has seen the highest reported death rate in Europe, is yet to allow restaurants to reopen for dine-in guests. It is hoped that, as long as the rate of new cases doesn’t increase, pubs, restaurants and hotels will begin trading again in July.

In the United Arab Emirates, a partial reduction in restrictions across Dubai allowed restaurants to reopen for Ramadan, offering dine-in Iftar. Capacity is restricted to 30% and restaurants are not allowed to offer shisha or buffet services.

Conversely, Egypt tightened its restrictions over Eid, extending its nighttime curfew, stopping public transport and keeping shops and restaurants closed. There is hope that there could be a gradual reopening of restaurants from mid-June.

South Africa has now moved into phase three of a five-tier coronavirus lockdown, which allows people to once again buy alcohol for home consumption. Meanwhile, the sale of tobacco is still prohibited and “high-risk economic activities” such as restaurants, bars and hairdressing salons will remain closed.

The new normal

As Europe in particular ventures into reopening restaurants, it is clear that foodservice operations will look very different from those before coronavirus, adapting swiftly to new trends.

“Restaurants are going to be affected greatly,” says consultant Frank Wagner FCSI, managing partner of K-DREI professional foodservice design in Berlin, Germany, and chair of FCSI German/Austria. “We are not very optimistic about the future of the restaurant culture as it is now – it will be a very deep change. Especially with a second wave expected in the autumn.”

Germany started opening up restaurants in May, with different rules in different areas. “This will give us a good overview about the right or wrong decisions, I think,” says Wagner. However, he also acknowledges that the industry has also had its first major knock, as 38 guests at a restaurant in the north of the country were exposed to the virus, leading to 120 people in quarantine and 18 people infected. The restaurant owner said he respected all the required rules and an investigation is underway.

Merrit-Harrison agrees that the industry will take some time to recover. “As the industry reopens, safe systems of work and social distancing measures are having to be put into kitchens that were not designed for them. Customer numbers will be reduced and the volume of sales will take a significant amount of time to revert to pre-Covid-19 levels, so catering budgets will need to be changed to reflect this,” he says.

Meanwhile, manufacturers will also have to adapt as the function and design of kitchens and restaurants evolves.

“Making everything smaller and more flexible will not work if the employees have to be protected,” says Wagner. “One employee in the kitchen being infected means all employees in the kitchen having to quarantine for two weeks. So, everyone should have their set space and team that they work in. No mixing of teams and proper disinfection of equipment, rooms and air will be crucial.”

As for the industry across Africa and the Middle East, how restaurants in each country will be able to adapt to the evolving foodservice landscape is less clear. Hope for recovery lies in the lifting of lockdown and establishments being able to reopen as soon as possible.

Liz Cooley