Under coronavirus restrictions, can Spaniards be persuaded to eat dinner at 8pm?

Bars and restaurants in the Madrid region are hoping that customers will be able to adapt to the earlier closing times that have been implemented in a bid to slow the spread of the virus

A waiter serves tourists at the Cervecería Alemana bar and restaurant in Madrid.
A waiter serves tourists at the Cervecería Alemana bar and restaurant in Madrid.Andrea Comas

The food and drink industry in the Madrid region faced an “avalanche of cancellations” when new measures aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus came into force last weekend. Ten cities – including the Spanish capital – were placed under a perimetral lockdown, meaning residents could only enter or leave for essential business. While that measure was on Thursday rejected by the Madrid High Court, other restrictions on social activity introduced in these areas still stand. As of last Friday evening, capacity at bars and restaurants in the affected cities is limited to 50% inside and 60% outside, with consumption at bar counters prohibited. These establishments also have to close at 11pm and will not be able to accept new customers from 10pm onward.

Within three days of the restrictions being introduced, 75,000 dinner reservations were canceled, according to the industry group Hostelería Madrid. This represents a loss of €8 million for the sector. The confusion surrounding the measures – which have been the source of an ongoing political battle between the Spanish and Madrid government – left bars and restaurants with little time to adapt. With business hours reduced, establishments are now opening earlier for dinner in a bid to maintain the largest number of diners possible.

Some restaurants have pushed forward the first dinner time slot to 8pm, a time that few Spaniards are used to eating at, with reservations traditionally made between 9 and 11pm. But Levél Veggie Bistro, an upscale vegan restaurant on Menéndez Pelayo avenue in front of Madrid’s famous El Retiro park, is one establishment that has always opened for dinner at an earlier hour. Gabriela Sánchez, the waitress in charge of the bistro’s reservations, says that this is due to the kind of customers who frequent the restaurant. “We have always had a lot of tourists because we are a reference point in the world of vegan food, and they eat dinner at that time. As much as you try, you are not going to convince a Spaniard to go out for dinner at 8pm,” she says.

A waiter puts away chairs at a restaurant in Madrid before the new 11pm closing time.
A waiter puts away chairs at a restaurant in Madrid before the new 11pm closing time.Olmo Calvo

With the new restrictions, Levél Veggie Bistro has decided to open for lunch on Wednesdays and Thursdays to try to make up for the lost business, but it is an act of faith that may not pay off. “At midday there is always less activity than at night. Dinners are where you make money,” says Sánchez. The restaurant has also started to offer home deliveries, an option that many establishments began to explore during Spain’s strict state of alarm, which closed all public-facing activities for months.

After the rush of cancellations last weekend, the head of the Madrid Business Confederation (CEIM), Miguel Garrido, formally protested the new restrictions in a letter to Health Minister Salvador Illa. The document, sent on Tuesday, called on the minister to reconsider the measures with “imaginative formulas” and to allow restaurants to close at a later time. Garrido highlighted that while food and drink establishments were refusing patrons after 10pm during the weekend, “large groups were buying drinks to share in private homes” without any police control – a situation that could lead to coronavirus outbreaks. Food and drink venues, on the other hand, are “completely safe” spaces that are “doubly controlled” – first by the owners and then by the authorities – said Garrido, who added that this would not change if they were allowed to close later.

At the Cervecería Alemana brewery, in the popular Santa Ana square in Madrid city, there are plans to open for three or four hours in the morning and evening to adapt to the new restrictions, which have cut the bar’s most profitable hours. From 10pm onwards, the 100-year-old bar could make €500 in two hours, says Lucio Burgos Céspedes, the manager at Cervecería Alemana. “Yesterday we made €380 in the entire day, where earlier we would have made more than €1,000. Many people are opting not to come at an earlier time. We are waiting to see what happens this week to see whether we need to put more staff on an ERTE [the central government’s furlough scheme],” says Burgos Céspedes. The brewery is also doing home deliveries in an effort to mitigate the impact of the crisis.

Ángel Zambrano, the head of the Taberna Tirso de Molina tavern in Madrid, says the restrictions have also hurt his business. “Before this we served many dinners, but now we don’t do any. Now people only come to drink and have a snack at the most. Nobody likes to eat dinner in a rush, and they are better off at home,” he says.

Customers at a sidewalk café in Madrid.
Customers at a sidewalk café in Madrid.Kiko Huesca (EFE)

But Joaquín Sánchez, the manager of another establishment in the area, believes that while he has lost business, the impact is not as catastrophic as it seems. “People are adapting, they are coming for dinner before 8pm or ordering food at 9.30pm, just before the time when we cannot accept more customers,” he says.

Beatriz González and Lorena Santos, two friends walking through El Retiro, share their thoughts on the subject. “It’s a public health issue. If [bars and restaurants] have to close earlier, we will have to do it like the English: meet up for a snack at 8pm and nothing more.” But González adds: “It’s true that if you have to meet earlier, you will meet earlier. But even then I think people will eat less. I’m not going to put away a steak and fries at 8pm, I’ll just have an open sandwich.”

Some customers will adapt to the new opening times, and the food and drink industry will take all possible action to limit the damage from the restrictions. But still, the outlook is not promising. Data from industry associations indicate that the revenue of some establishments has already fallen 75% compared to last year’s figures.

Faced with such dismal numbers, some businesses do not have the option of waiting to see how the situation plays out. The Rotonda de Pacífico, a rice restaurant on Ciudad de Barcelona street in Madrid, has decided to close its doors at 5pm. Francisco Trillo, the owner, says they will now solely focus on breakfasts and lunches because “there’s no interest in dinners with the new restrictions.”

Impact on the self-employed

The measures aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus in the Madrid region are not only affecting the food and drink sector. Under the restrictions, all stores and establishments such as gyms and hairdressers must limit capacity to 50% and close by 10pm.

The self-employed workers association ATA warned on Monday that one in four of their businesses could disappear if these restrictions last for more than a month. The association agreed with the business confederation CEIM that the measures could lead to losses of up to €600 million a week for the entire business sector. With these forecasts in mind, the Madrid government has estimated that gross domestic product (GDP) in the region will fall 17% and that 18,000 jobs will be lost every week.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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