Unease in Greece as restaurants, cafes reopen

Marina RAFENBERG
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Slowing infection rates have allowed restaurants in Greece to reopen a week ahead of schedule, but only for outdoor service

Slowing infection rates have allowed restaurants in Greece to reopen a week ahead of schedule, but only for outdoor service (AFP Photo/ARIS MESSINIS)

Athens (AFP) - Restaurants and cafes across Greece opened ahead of schedule Monday as the country prepared to launch a shortened tourism season vital to its economy.

But with social distancing rules limiting businesses to around 50-percent capacity, and only outdoor tables allowed, many owners questioned the wisdom of reopening after a lockdown of over two months.

"We have to disinfect everything all the time... we'd have to hire someone to clean up and keep track of the customers... but are unable to do that," cafe owner Vangelis Daskalopoulos told AFP in Athens.

"I don't know how we're going to manage," he said, adding that he was torn between his fear of the virus and the need to keep his business running.

In cafes like his, a mandatory minimum distance of between 70 cm (28 inches) to 1.7 meters (5.5 feet) between seats is required, and a maximum of six seated customers per table is allowed.

Despite the misgivings of some like Daskalopoulos, patrons were happy for the chance socialise in cafes again.

"I'm thrilled to break the isolation of recent months and reconnect with friends," said pensioner Giorgos Karavatsanis.

"The cafe in Greece has a social dimension, it's where the heart of the district beats," he said.

- 'The difficulties are behind us' -

But some three in 10 cafes or restaurants were expected to stay closed out of fear of slow business, Nikos Nifoudis of the Thessaloniki Catering Initiative told Athens News Agency over the weekend.

"The sector is very anxious to see how returning to business will play out... no one can predict how confident customers are to return to cafes and restaurants," he said.

"The difficulties are behind us," Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told Star television station.

"Of the 1,300 arrivals to Greece from abroad these last few days, no cases of the coronavirus have been detected," he added.

But he admitted he feared the effect of the crisis on the country's middle classes and estimated that this year in Greece, the recession would be between five and 10 percent.

Eateries were originally slated to open June 1, but the slow spread of the pandemic in Greece allowed the date to be moved forward.

The country of 11 million has so far recorded fewer than 180 coronavirus deaths.

Since May 4, Greece has progressively opened tourism-related businesses following a lockdown imposed in March to stave off an economic contraction that could reach 13 percent of output this year.

- Flights to resume -

Paid beaches opened on May 16, while ferry travel to the islands was permitted on Monday. Year-round hotels are to resume operations on June 1, followed by seasonal hotels on June 15.

Flights into Athens will restart on June 15, and to the rest of Greece's regional and island airports on July 1.

The EU has said holidaymakers could be asked to wear face masks on planes, respect social distancing on the beach and even book slots to use hotel pools.

Greece had initially wanted incoming tourists to submit to tests at least 72 hours before travel, but Brussels frowned at the suggestion.

Athens now says it will not require travellers to undergo virus testing or quarantine, but sample tests will be carried out for epidemiological purposes.

Restaurants were shuttered on March 14, two days after Greece recorded its first COVID-19 death, with only takeout food and delivery allowed.

Elsewhere in Europe, the terraces of cafés and restaurants were also reopening for the first time in months. In Madrid and Barcelona, the Spanish cities hardest hit by the virus, they finally opened, two weeks behind the rest of the country.

They were also opening in the German state of Bavaria. But here too, owners complained that restrictive safe distances cut their customer numbers and thus their bottom line.