Coronavirus hits bars and restaurants, but: ”life is too short not to smile”

Andreas Grube
Published 14-March-2020

The coronavirus is spreading over the world, causing severe damage to the restaurant business. We’ve talked with some of our ambassadors and other sommeliers around the world about the effects, and how the industry copes with the situation.

Edit: Since this was published on 14 March - new rules has forced most restaurants in New York to close, including Legacy Records where Arvid Rosengren works. /editor, 17 March.

”It’s nervous for sure. No one knows where we’re headed or how long it will last. Last week was still busy due to a ton of big wine events and tastings around town. Although we’ve seen corporate clients cancelling private dining events for a couple of weeks, it has really ramped up after the weekend with the stock market downturn, and has finally also reached regular dine-in guests who are cancelling a lot,” says New York-based sommelier world champion Arvid Rosengren, partner of Star Wine List.

On Friday, 13 March, news got out that the Union Square Hospitality Group in the US closes all restaurants in response to the virus, in total around 20 restaurants in multiple cities. According to Eater New York, other restaurants are closing down as well, such as Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin.

Arvid Rosengren.

Arvid Rosengren says that many other restaurants around New York are trying to cope with the situation as best as the can, by cutting costs where possible, promoting to-go meals and taking care of the people who actually do come in.

”One thing which may be anecdotal, we are seeing is that the guests that do show up drink (and thus) spend well,” he says.

In Europe, the Norwegian government issued new directions, which have forced the majority of all restaurants, bars and pubs to close indefinitely.

”All the venues that don’t serve food are forced to close, and all restaurants that cannot guarantee a minimum of one meter between each guest and that can accommodate more than 50 guests at the same time must also close,” says sommelier Jessica Senning, Star Wine List’s ambassador in Oslo.

Jessica Senning, Star Wine List's ambassador in Oslo.

The same goes for Poland:

”For the next 14 days, only polish citizens can get into Poland. Also, all restaurants, wine bars, coffee bars etcetera are closed. Challenging times,” says Star Wine List’s Warsaw ambassador, sommelier Norbert Dudzinski.

In Macau, restaurants, casinos, schools, bars and other venues already have been closed for 15 days to a month, but are now starting to reopen, says Hedi Lao, Star Wine List’s Macau ambassador. And, even though there’s no known cases of corona in Macau right now, and though the overall mood is positive, most bars and restaurants are still struggling:

Hedi Lao, Star Wine List's Macau ambassador.

”The number of visitors has decreased tremendously. Visitors from countries like Spain, France or most of China, etcetera, are required to quarantine 14 days after arriving in the city, in a specific site arranged by the government,” she says.

”The dining habit has changed a bit too; people are more cautious if they need to dine out, with face masks on, bringing along hand sanitiser, etc. Also, the dining-out frequency has reduced; instead, people are buying food and beverages from grocery stores, or purchase online to cook at home, calling for delivery service from restaurants is also an option after restaurants reopened.”

In London, the government on 16 March put out further advice, strongly advising people to stay away from pubs, clubs, restaurants, theatres and other social venues.

”They are not forcing closure. Which has left many in a very tricky position over what to do. If it was policy to close there may be a chance of claiming insurance (if you ticked the ’pandemic’ box when filling it perhaps!) but until then it appears the businesses have to take the hit. Or they can remain open, to stay in business, and pay staff something, yet feel guilty for potentially increasing infection... very tricky,” says wine writer Ruth Spivey, Star Wine List's ambassador in London.

Italy has been severely hit by corona, and at this moment the whole country is closed down. Matteo Valencic, former Restaurant Manager and sommelier at Michelin starred restaurant PM & Vänner in Sweden recently moved back to Italy from Sweden. He’s got a lot of friends in the restaurant industry back home, and he says that the situation is tough.

”Most of my friends that run restaurants have been forced to close since people don’t dare going out anymore. They all accept the situation, but it’s hard. They still have to pay salaries and everything, and the government won’t help them economically. Some of the people I know don’t have any money put away, they’re living back to back on what they earn every week. Now rent and bills come in as always, but no money.” he says.

All these small venues that helped to build the world’s most famous cuisine is on the verge of disappearing

He says that in Friuli Venezia Giulia, summer season usually starts around 1 April, and that preparations start around 15 March, with a lot of seasonal workers coming in. This year, things are different.

”People will lose a lot of income, and a lot of people have lost their opportunity to work during the summer. People are sad because they don’t know what to do,” says Matteo.

Matteo Valencic.

Matteo says he thinks the crisis will affect Italy for a long time to come since one of the most important pillars in the Italian community is starting to collapse.

”All these small venues that helped to build the world’s most famous cuisine is on the verge of disappearing. Think about all the months it will take for tourists to start coming back. Think of all the talented chefs and sommeliers standing there, ready on a Saturday night, without a single guest in the dining room. Think of all the young restaurateurs that just opened up their businesses and got this nightmare of a start.”

At the same time, Matteo Valencic is full of hope. The situation is difficult, but Italy will bounce back.

”We have fought (and lost) two world wars, we’ve had invasions and catastrophes, but we’re still standing. What’s happening right now won’t make us lose our love for food, wine and life. The ones that are still standing when this is over, will be stronger than ever. And the ones who’ve lost everything will find the energy to start from scratch. In the end,’ la vita è troppa corta per non sorridere’ – life is too short not to smile.”


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