Bar or restaurant? The big issue in pandemic-struck Brussels

BRUSSELS (AP) — New coronavirus restrictions put a spotlight on two Belgian classics this week: Beer and surrealism.

Since bars in Brussels were forced to close as of Thursday for at least a month to deal with a massive surge in cases but restaurants were allowed to remain open, the big question on the streets is: when is a bar a bar and when is a bar a restaurant? And more importantly, does the distinction really help contain the pandemic?

It is all very reminiscent of surrealism master Rene Magritte, who painted a picture of a pipe and wrote under it “Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe,)” — because, of course, it is an image of a pipe.

“The Treachery of Images,” as the painting is called, also applies to Brussels watering holes these days. To stay open and in business, bars will have to prove that they are not bars.

Aurore Phanariotis of Le Paon d’Or, which advertises itself as a “Bar Lounge” was working on it as soon as the Brussels ban went into effect. Serving coffee, beers, wines, but also pastries and nibbles, she thinks she can lean both ways and stay open.

“Bars indeed have to close, but bars are not places where food is served,” she said. “So I interpret it in a way that benefits me and as I have a cafe serving small food, I kind of have two hats. So I take off my cafe owner hat to wear my restaurant owner hat.”

Across Brussels, similar issues could be found, with some places known for their beers suddenly highlighting their kitchen magic. Even in the face of restrictive definitions of bars and restaurants published in the official state gazette Thursday, confusion continued to reign. After all, Belgium is a nation where the spirit of the law can trump the letter.

And who can blame bar owners for creativity after suffering through a three-month lockdown this spring, as well as service restrictions since the pandemic hit Belgium in March? All too many are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. “There are already five suicides among our members,” said Diane Delen, head of the FedCaf Belgian federation of cafes.

Bars insist they have made the same costly efforts as restaurants to apply coronavirus rules but authorities insist that a bar is much more of a COVID-19 spreader than a restaurant.

“We know that the virus finds a hotbed there,” said Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroecke. “They are real hotspots. Not all bars, but, unfortunately, too many,” he told VRT network on Wednesday, arguing that bars are less safe as the night progresses while restaurants are better organized.

On Thursday, though, he sounded not nearly as certain when he came under fire from legislators for targeting bars.

“Is there scientific proof? Colleagues, I will have to frustrate you, disappoint you,” he said in the plenary. “Science is uncertain and data could be better.”

Such words turn Delen livid. “This is a phenomenal fraud,” she said. “There is no scientific proof whatsoever,” adding the measure would lead to a wave of bankruptcies as bars had to close for months already during the first wave.

Vandenbroecke said he understood bar owners’ anger but said the crisis called for drastic measures, especially since Belgium has one of the highest infection rates per capita in the world.

“So don’t ask for the ultimate proof,” he said. Instead, he said, “we have to act.” To illustrate how pressing the issue was, the Brussels Minister President Rudi Vervoort, who imposed the bar ban only on Wednesday, tested positive for the virus on Thursday.

Overall, the nation of 11.5 million has one of the world’s highest per-capita death rates with just over 10,000 victims. Brussels, a city of 1.2 million, has one of the highest infection rates in Europe, and it is rising.

“Of course it is unfair, but the virus is unfair,” Vandenbroucke said.

The bar industry, though, insists any lack of fairness comes from the authorities.

“The decision taken by the government is completely unproductive because it will only push people to meet in a higher concentration in restaurants or in private parties,” said Hubert Blanquet, who owns four bars in Brussels. And, despite all the investments and efforts to contain the virus by bar owners, “we are pointed at like the bad boys,” he added.


Video journalist Sylvain Plazy contributed.


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