The last drink in Europe? Swedish bars stay open despite coronavirus


  • World
  • Saturday, 28 Mar 2020

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - The bar area of Wirstroms pub in central Stockholm is a "no-go zone".

The words "DO NOT STAND HERE! TABLE SERVICE ONLY!" are scrawled in white marker across the bar's wooden counter, which only weeks ago was littered with beer mats and crowded with elbows.

While the global spread of coronavirus has closed pubs right across Europe, Sweden has hung back, with authorities on Tuesday saying bars and restaurants could stay open - but only if customers are seated and served at a table.

"This is completely new for both us and our customers... We have 26 taps of beer, which often change, so it's a little bit confusing when people can't approach the bar," Wirstroms owner Martin Hession, 49, told Reuters.

Hession said that despite remaining open his sales are down 75% compared with March last year, forcing him to sack most of his staff.

"I'd prefer to be closed... I can't understand why the government wants us to stay open while pubs and restaurants are going bankrupt," he added, as he rushed between the tables and bars of his labyrinthine pub in Stockholm's old town.

In the United Kingdom, for example, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered pubs to shut last week, with the government offering to pay 80% of the wages of those sent home while the shutdown lasts.

On the other hand, Sweden has like most other countries asked people to maintain so-called "social distancing", particularly in pubs.

"Keeping two metres apart is absolutely easy for us, even natural," said Asa Jacobsson, 47, as she sipped white wine by a window seat in Hjartats bar, on Stockholm's trendy Sodermalm island.

Desiring ample personal space and avoiding close contact with others are characteristic Swedish traits, she said.

"It's a luxury," she added, gesturing to the two metres of space between her and her companion, which was demarcated by stripes of grey tape.

This new arrangement has, however, rankled with some punters at the nearby Viking Bar, where regulars have had to vacate their usual stool at the counter and sit further apart.

"I live alone and now work from home...so I need this," said customer Mattias Ehringe.

Ehringe said the coronavirus is most often on his mind when he is cooped-up in his flat, whereas going to the pub gives him a sense of normality.

While most schools and businesses remain open, Sweden's health authority told Reuters on Thursday that greater restrictions should only be imposed at the right time.

Sweden has recorded 3,046 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 92 deaths.

"But also," Ehringe added: "I would prefer the government ordered us to stay home, as that's harder to do when you have the choice to go out."

(Reporting by Colm Fulton; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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