Confusion and delays leave restaurants uncertain ahead of planned opening date

Restaurants, bars and cafes are supposed to be able to start operating - with restrictions - from next Monday 1st June but there's a lot of uncertainty about whether that will really be possible.

File picture of cafe in Porvoo / Credit: iStock

Finland’s restaurants, cafes and bars are supposed to open again for business from next Monday 1st June, but there’s so much confusion and delay around implementing new laws and providing clarity on funding that it might not be a realistic goal for many businesses.

There’s two separate issues muddying the waters for the much-anticipated re-opening, which comes after almost two months of forced closures to slow the spread of coronavirus. First, settling the conditions under which businesses can begin trading again; and second, a financial package for business owners.

In the latest twist, Parliament’s Constitutional Law Committee declared on Monday that there needs to be further changes to the relevant laws under which restaurants, bars and cafes would be restricted to 50% occupancy of seated customers.

The issue will now be looked at again on Tuesday, but it is any case a contentious issue for the industry.

“Fifty percent capacity is not enough. You still have all the costs of running a business, but you only get 50% of your income. It will make it very difficult to open and many restaurants will have to think about whether it is better to stay closed” says Timo Lappi, CEO of the Finnish Hospitality Association MaRa.

MaRa’s position is that the law needs to allow an upper limit of 75% occupancy, with social distancing and other safety precautions, before it becomes financially viable for many businesses to open again next week.

Although the 50% occupancy rule won’t be changed before 1st June, ministers have promised to review the situation in the middle of the month and if it’s possible, ease restrictions again before Midsummer.

“We are doing everything to make sure people are safe when they come to restaurants, but we are not sure. There are many question marks about the opening of the first week” Lappi tells News Now Finland.

Another of those issues is about buffets – the lunchtime lifeblood of many smaller businesses in particular. Although still not allowed to open next Monday, businesses that would normally only feature a lunch buffet, like sushi restaurants for example, are able to  serve take-away items. That’s another restrictions which can be reviewed, and potentially eased, in the coming weeks.

More delays on restaurant bailout package

The second issue being faced by all restaurant owners is when and how they can start to claim some of the compensation the government has promised them for being forced to close their businesses since the beginning of April.

The legislation was drafted then almost immediately questioned by Centre Party ministers over the calculations on payments, and has since been looked at again in committee.

“It took the Government two months to give a proposal to Parliament. And even that proposal was not complete – they asked the Economic Committee to revise it” explains MP Elina Lepomäki (NCP) who sits on the Economic Committee.

“It took the committee in Parliament less than a week to refine it. I call that speed. The government, less so” she states.

Even when it finally gets approved by Parliament, there needs to be EU approval for state aid to the entire hospitality sector and that just means more delays before business owners will get any money in their accounts.

“It’s possible the financial package will be accepted just a couple of days before restaurants are opening” says the Finnish Hospitality Association’s Timo Lappi, although he does say it’s been tough for civil servants and politicians to push laws through so quickly during the coronavirus crisis.

Without the money from the government to cover up to 15% of their lost revenues, some businesses won’t be able to hire staff or order supplies from wholesalers or breweries in advance, meaning they simply can’t open on 1st June.

Timo Lappi hopes there will be some flexibility here too along the supply chain.

“Many restaurants of course will have run out of money, but others who are supplying meat and vegetables I hope they will give credit, because they will also be in a difficult situation if restaurants can’t open” says Lappi.

“There are many problems, but I think there will also be solutions to get things open.”

File picture of restaurant buffet line / Credit: iStock