'Not a car you can just restart': Brussels bars will open step by step

'Not a car you can just restart': Brussels bars will open step by step
Credit: Belga/M. Ghyselings

While Brussels' hospitality sector is hoping to find enough space to put up their terraces this weekend, they are mainly just happy to start serving customers again, after over half a year of closure.

Some businesses with small terraces will only be able to have two tables due to the 1.5 metres distance, but the most important part is that the sector can finally work again, according to Marc Van Muylders of Horeca Brussels.

"It is so important that we can just start working again," he told The Brussels Times.

The question of bar and restaurant owners is no longer 'is it workable or profitable to reopen the terraces,' according to Van Muylders. "The question, at this point, is 'can we start again?'"

"A hospitality business is not like a car that you leave in the garage for six months, then turn the key in the ignition and it starts again," he stressed, referring to supply deliveries and personnel that has to be found.

While the sector would have preferred it if everyone would be able to start fully right away, "it might not be a bad thing that we are only starting up progressively," Van Muylders said.

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"In principle, restaurants are supplied every day, with fish, meat and other products," he added. "Twice a week, barrels of beers are delivered, but brewers also have to start up again first. Everyone is a small part of the story."

The local authorities, which are currently working around the clock to process the flood of applications for permits from businesses looking to expand their terraces, are also a part of that story, according to Van Muylders.

"The thing is, you also have to find enough space to expand onto," he said. "We are calling on our customers to come, in the hope that we can put them at the tables that we have."

By freeing up car parks and finding space wherever they can, however, "the authorities are giving us the best possible opportunity for a successful reopening," Van Muylders added, referring to an initiative by Brussels State Secretary for Urban Planning Pascal Smet to allow terraces on parking spaces.

Too early for indoor clients

While the reopening of terraces offers some hope for the sector, it is still "far from ideal," Van Muylders said, adding that the next important step is serving customers indoors again.

"We would have preferred to also be allowed to receive customers again inside," he added, referring especially to restaurants, where people sitting outside are much less likely to order food if there is a chance it could start raining. "The erratic weather expected over the coming days is a bummer."

On Thursday, however, Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden already stated that "it is still a little too early" to make any decisions about when indoor hospitality could start again right now, but that some prospects could be expected in June.

"We hope that can also start again as soon as possible," Van Muylders said, adding that the sector is continuously in talks with the authorities to keep a finger on the pulse.

"It will take some getting used to with these new measures, but it's a start," he said. "Let's hope that, in general, the weather turns out all right in the coming months, and that we can work well. Everything will fall into place."

Bars are allies

The central part of the hospitality industry is still the clients, Van Muylders pointed out.

"We are there to serve our customers, and we want them to feel as good as possible, and to feel safe," he said.

When making sure that people get together in an organised way, however, bars and restaurants are an ally of the government, according to Van Muylders. "We have said that from the beginning."

"We can guarantee that we respect the social distance and other rules, which is not always the case with large groups of people on a square or in a park."

However, while owners will make sure the coronavirus measures are respected on their terraces, they will not be acting as police officers either, Van Muylders stressed.

Groups of a maximum of four people are allowed at a table, except when it concerns people from the same household, but as - contrary to last summer - customers no longer have to register and leave contact data at the door, there is no real way to check that.

"If six customers say they are from the same family, we are not going to ask for identity cards to check that," Van Muylders said. "We are counting on the public being sufficiently conscientious and respecting the measures."

In search of sufficient personnel

Another factor that could pose some issues is finding enough personnel, as he fears that a lot of the previous hospitality workers have moved on to another job during the six-month closure.

"Many of our staff have been at home for a long time now, or have found other jobs," Van Muylders said. "We are a profession in which people work very irregular hours, six days a week, often until late at night."

The question, according to him, is whether those staff members are willing to come back now.

"Although, because we are only starting step by step, I do not think the issue will pose itself right away," Van Muylders said. "With only the terraces open, we do not need to work at full capacity yet."

Once the indoor parts of bars and restaurants will start reopening, more people will be needed to serve everyone.

"In the first stages, when not everyone has been vaccinated yet, we assume that will still be with more limited tables, and 1.5 metres distance between them," Van Muylders said.

"If we take all those factors together, we will have some time to find people, but it might be a bit of a search. We'll see," he said. "We are looking forward to it."

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