Six months of coronavirus in Finland: Spotlight on Porvoo

We talked with the deputy mayor and local business owners to find out how the epidemic had changed life in the south coast town.

Cococo owner Anna Back / Credit: Annika Schmitt, News Now Finland

This week marks six months since the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Finland – a tourist from China visiting Lapland who tested positive for Covid-19 at the end of January.

In the weeks and months that followed, Finland and the rest of the world had to adapt to a new normal vocabulary of words like social distancing, PPE, R-rates and pandemic.

On Finland’s south coast, Porvoo has been hit by the virus like every town in the country so it’s as good a place as any to get a snapshot of where things stand, after half a year.

“There’s of course implications for the city and the economics. International tourism is down, almost none. But we get a lot of domestic tourists who like to visit Porvoo in the summer. Now that he situation is what it is and people move around Finland safely and we get a lot of visitors” says Fredrick von Schoultz, the City of Porvoo’s Deputy Mayor.

The local petrochemical plants, due for a large maintenance overhaul, had to postpone the work when it became impossible to bring in foreign workers. This will cost “hundreds of millions” according to von Schoultz.

“The final picture, how hard it will hit our economy will be clearer when we know what the state will offer. Right now the financial burden to the city this year will be €10 million and if the state steps in it will be less” he explains.

The City of Porvoo’s budget runs to €370 million per year, so a €10 million hit is not insignificant, and covering any shortfall will inevitably mean taking on more debt.

File picture from Thai Street Food Porvoo / Credit: FB

Charting the pandemic impact on local business

Like everywhere else in Finland the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be seen on the high street.

Restaurants, cafes and bars were closed for almost two months during the lockdown, and many struggled to stay in business – even if they could come up with alternative revenue streams.

At Thai Street Food in Porvoo co-owner Curtis Pollard says some things had to immediately change for the business.

When the pandemic hit the restaurant went into survival mode, laying off their staff as soon as they knew that restaurants would be shuttered.

“Following that process, we kind of reviewed the current situation of the business and what changes we thought we have to make for the future” Pollard, originally from Australia, explains.

With tourist numbers not expected to reach the usual summer highs, and with their regular lunch crowd now working from home, Thai Street Food diversified with new ‘grab & go’ products in outlets like Lidl and R-Kioski.

During 2019 the restaurant had set up an efficient operational structure so they knew how to control costs based on estimates of customer numbers and profit margins.

“Since we’ve opened again, we brought back 70% of our staff. But for us, we need to make a decision by the end of the month, whether we terminate those contracts or bring them back” explains Pollard.

Since the beginning of June when restaurants could re-open again, albeit with limited capacity, Thai Street Food is making about 55% of the sales the were before lockdown.

For the business, it means that they can just break even with a low number of staff, but it also means they have to make sacrifices for example not opening more restaurants this year as they had planned, and closing restaurants on Sundays.

“My hope is that the sales come up to a similar level where they were December last year” says Pollard.

There’s also plans to increase their ‘grab & go’ offerings in supermarkets so that by January next year they’ll be looking at similar net sales levels as before.

Exterior of Cococo boutique, Porvoo Old Town / Credit: Annika Schmitt, News Now Finland

Small store sees benefits from domestic tourism 

In Porvoo’s Old Town, Cococo sells clothes and crafts imported from Africa and India.

The range of colourful quality products gives the boutique a unique exotic presence among the other shops on Porvoo’s cobbled streets.

During the spring the Old Town is quiet in general, so owner Anna Back says she was prepared for a lull in sales. However, the pandemic didn’t have too much of an impact after that.

“In May, when the tourist buses start to come, then I noticed that there is 30% less stuff being sold, when there were no foreign tourists” she tells News Now Finland.

“Now it is very nice that more finish travellers have chosen to come to Porvoo, because they miss the beauty of Finland and we have very beautiful places here” she adds.

The boutique would of course be selling more if there were foreign tourists this summer, and sales are down about 30% – 40% compared to last year.

Luckily nobody was made redundant because Back works alone and she got some help to hire sales staff.

In the future she’s hoping everything goes back to normal but with more people traveling in Finland instead of going abroad – with domestic tourists discovering Porvoo’s local businesses.

Coronavirus lessons learned in Porvoo

At Porvoo City Hall there’s been lessons learned during the last six months – not just as a city council, but as a community.

Deputy Mayor Fredrick von Schoultz says there are many positive things to take away from how the town coped during the crisis.

“This spring has taught us a lot as an organisation. First of all a good thing in Porvoo was we managed to keep the virus out of the elderly care. It has kept mortality numbers really low here, and we have managed quite well” he explains.

Another positive comes from education in the town, where von Schoultz says teachers are enthusiastic about getting back to class again, even though there’s some uncertainty about a possible second wave of infections.

“Teachers are positive about handling the situation based on the experience they got during the spring. The use of digital tools is up a lot” says the deputy mayor.

“We took a big leap forward. Now people who didn’t use electronic tools so much, including teachers, are using them.”

File picture of Porvoo Old Town / Credit: iStock