The tables inside the Primavera Italian restaurant in Moscow’s Shchukino district should have been packed on a Monday afternoon, but the only diners were sat outside braving a thunderstorm.
For Moscow’s bustling restaurant business, it was the first day of a tough new QR-code regime that requires diners to provide proof they have been vaccinated or have a negative PCR test to eat indoors. And the diners did not appear to have received the memo.
“It’s hell,” said Oksana, the Primavera’s manager, clutching a QR-code scanner after she turned away another dejected couple hoping to sit inside. “I’ve had two tables inside for the whole day because no one has a QR code. Thunderstorms. Stores, everywhere else is open. Why [are the restrictions] just for restaurants?”
For months, Moscow was the rare European capital where restaurants and bars remained packed through much of the pandemic, a parallel reality seemingly oblivious to the country’s estimated hundreds of thousands of Covid deaths and a vaccination drive that has inoculated only 11% of the population.
Now, cafes and restaurants look likely to take a hit from the city’s long-delayed response to the coronavirus epidemic. After the government’s lacklustre campaign to get Russians to get jabs of Sputnik and other domestically produced vaccines, cafe owners have said they feel like they’re being “sacrificed” as the government scrambles to contain an “explosion” in new cases.
“The state is just solving their problems sacrificing the small restaurant business,” said Artem Temirov, a co-founder of the popular Chernyy Cooperative coffee shop, which served about 40% fewer customers than usual on Monday. “No support at all from them because they let you work, the coffee shops are open, it’s still not a lockdown. And they don’t care how you pay the bills, they need to show that they are fighting the Covid pandemic.”
As a minor culture war erupts over the Russian government’s decision to limit resort vacations, non-essential surgeries, and other facets of public life for the unvaccinated, restaurants and cafes look likely to be the next flashpoint. When Coffeemania, a popular upscale chain, announced it would be following the new rules, readers on Instagram criticised the restaurants for acting “like slaves” and compared the new rules to the Holocaust.
“The comments under this post are the portal to hell. Hang in there,” one response read.
The growing inventory of health certificates needed for daily life has become something of a joke.
“Can I have your QR code? Your PCR test? Your antibodies test? Now what would you like?” one anecdote read over the radio went. “A Big Mac and cola,” was the reply.
But for the city’s restaurateurs, the new QR-code regime was no laughing matter. On a normal Monday, Tamada, a Georgian restaurant in Shchukino, would have served 160 people by midday, mostly office workers wolfing down cheesy khachapuris, or “business lunches”, of stewed meats or shashlik. On Monday, only 40 had come in, most sitting on a summer terrace that would also require QR codes next month.
“All we can do is pray people get vaccinated and then that they come out to eat,” said Zara, the lone waitress at Tamada.
The city says 2.5 million QR codes have already been acquired and undoubtedly the system will become more orderly. But restaurant owners are worried how long they can survive under the current conditions.
If revenues fell 40-50%, Temirov said, his coffee shop would not be profitable but could survive a month or two by borrowing money to pay salaries. If revenues fell more than 50%, that would be “a catastrophe”. They would try to make up the difference by increasing online sales of their coffee. But questions remained as to what help they might receive from the government.
“They failed with the campaign around vaccination because three months ago they were saying that Russia defeated Covid, everything is fine,” said Temirov. “And now they urgently try to assure people that the vaccination is the only way to survive. Where were they the whole year?”