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What If We, like Sweden, Didn't Close Restaurants?



If you’ve wondered what it would have been like if Governor Walz hadn’t ordered restaurant dining rooms to be closed during the pandemic, the answer may be found in Sweden.

While the rest of the world buttoned up, Sweden adopted a modified policy calling for social distancing, working from home and closing gathering places such as cinemas, colleges and universities, but not school for kindergarten through ninth grades.

Restaurants stayed open, but guests didn’t come. Richard Tellstrom, associate professor in food history at Stockholm University, estimates in his conversations with restaurant owners in Stockholm that revenue is down about 90 percent. Takeout and delivery are up, he said, and restaurants have started making weekend meals, which he called “fancy meals” that require some prep and cooking on the diner’s part. However, since workers are home, more are cooking their two hot meals a day, resulting in a 10 to 15 percent increase in food retailers' sales.

Bank of America’s head of global economics, Ethan Harris, reported a 70 percent figured, but his is based on restaurants, cafes and hotels countrywide.

COVID-19 restrictions on in-restaurant dining include not being able to order or stand at the bar or counters to eat. While Americans tend to sit on high stools at bars, Europeans often stand so more people can drink around the counter. Diners now have to be seated, Tentsrom said via a Zoom video chat.

For Michelin–starred dining destinations, such as Sweden's Daniel Berlin’s that rely on tourists, a pleasant surprise came when the international foodies could no longer cross the border from the nearest international airport and instead the locals showed up, according to an article in Vanity Fair. Swedes who previously didn’t want to bother dialing in at a certain time and date to make a reservation four months out, could now secure a table.  It won’t be enough, the article said, but it’s keeping the lights on for now.

At the world-renown Noma, in Denmark, the article’s author said reopening will involve lower prices and fewer courses, since the anticipation is that no one is going to want to sit near strangers or be in a restaurant for hours required for tasting menus of nine or more courses with wine pairings. The chef said, he is going to ease back into restaurant dining with wine evenings where patrons can sit in the garden and on the patio and enjoy wine and snacks while maintaining a safe distance from each other.

As far as a survival rate for restaurants, Tenstrom said “a good guess is that we will lose many restaurants,” even though they've remained open, and that the final shut downs will come at the end of this month, after they have been out of business for two to three months.

And while restaurants in the Twin Cities will be entering their busy patio season come summer,  for city restaurants in Sweden, summers are typically their slow period, as workers take off on holiday or to their country homes. The average vacation for Swedish workers is five weeks, with six or seven weeks not being uncommon, he said. In the past, restaurants in resort areas have seen a boon from tourists in the summer months, however, “this year there won’t be any tourists at all, Europe is closed down,” Tenstrom said.

As evidence, he cited that Volborg, the country’s national holiday April 30 that celebrates the beginning of spring and summer with large gatherings around bonfires, didn't happen. Last year 150,000 people attended in his town, this year there was zero, he said.

So far, there have been no food shortages. “We are 50 percent self-sufficient in food,” he said. But if they need to exist just on what they produce, their diet would be grains, sugar and carrots—“and, of course, vodka.”

Because Sweden is on the outskirts of Europe, and therefore the farthest point to ship to, they are already seeing an increase in the price of fresh vegetables.

Unlike Americans, Swedes consider food an important part of their culture, Tentstrom said, but from a health standpoint, not entertainment. “We are eating for the nutritional value of food,” he added. Perhaps one of the reasons the schools have stayed open for younger students is that the government provides free lunches.

Minnesota is home to around 300,000 Swedes, and the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, which has about 5,000 members, has an active roster of programs, including cooking classes—now all virtual—and a beautiful castle for events.

While keeping restaurants open doesn’t appear to have helped the economic situation, it did have a profound effect on the number of people who died of the virus.

As of May 4, there were 2,769 reported deaths due to COVID-19, a much higher rate than its Nordic neighbors, according to Statista.

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