On the evening of Wednesday, the eleventh of March, the L’Eixample neighborhood of Barcelona was bustling. It wasn’t quite the hotbed of energy one associates with the quintessentially European trove of hotels, bars, cafes, and restaurants – in large part because it was still quite chilly – but life was unfolding, essentially, as usual.
There was a cloud looming over the festivities. No one was certain at that moment what it would mean, but the coronavirus that’s sparked a global pandemic and brought much of the world’s economic activity to a screeching halt, COVID-19, was here. After starting March with a nationwide total (in a country of nearly 47 million) of 84 confirmed cases and zero deaths. By the end of March 11 – a third consecutive day with at least 464 new cases – Spain’s total sat at 2,277 cases and 55 casualties.
It’s worth mentioning that not only was COVID-19 here, but it was also demanding our attention. Those who’ve spent any time in Southern Europe are no doubt familiar with one of the most charming – and occasionally frustrating – traits of the region: the borderline indifference; an ever-present and unflappable combination of “this is nothing!” and “eh, what are you gonna do?”.
The following night, every shop, eatery, bar, café, and hotel was open.
Less than 24 hours later, on Friday the 13th, faced with another new high in cases and deaths, the Spanish government, implemented an immediate and mandatory lockdown of all non-essential business in the country for fifteen days. In case you’re wondering, “essential” referred only to grocery stores, pharmacies, small markets, and tobacco shops. That’s it. Not only was this all that was open, but it was also all we were allowed to do. Unless you were going to one of these four places or taking your dog for a walk, you were at home. If you were going to one of these places, you were going alone.
Just five days into that initial fifteen-day lockdown, another fifteen days was added on. Not two weeks later, the government went ahead tacked on another thirty. We were all going to be at home for sixty days. There was no going for a run. No taking a walk. No “drive-by happy hours” in driveways. No “quickly swinging by so-and-so’s house”. Not take-out from restaurants. Lockdown meant lockdown. Through some combination of simply having no outside-the-house options for leisure activities whatsoever (I can’t stress this enough), and the very real threat of being ticketed by the police for non-essential excursions, for over two months, we locked down. Our social circle came to consist of neighbors within earshot of our balcony. The highlight of more than a few days was the nightly 8:00 pm ritual of applauding the health workers who were valiantly trying to save those infected, and fighting the virus’ spread.
This is not a hypochondriac culture. Nor is it one that’s quick to sacrifice the simple perks that define the rather casual lifestyle. And yet, those wide, tree-lined sidewalks, on those distinctive octagonal blocks, that onetime hotbed of social activity, became an absolute ghost town. We waited, eagerly, for the release of the previous day’s numbers, right around noon. A numbing fear took hold two and a half weeks in when the number of newly confirmed cases reached a new high of nearly 8,300. It was reinforced a couple of days later when 961 COVID-related deaths were reported. Horrific as those numbers were, they are, thankfully, the worst that we saw.
As March gave way to April… the numbers were moving in the right direction! Very quickly, except for the odd spike, the chart began to reflect the turning of a corner. Soon, we saw it in reality. It was announced that beginning on April 26, children under 14 – who’d not been allowed to leave the house at all – would be allowed out for up to an hour, between the hours of noon and 7:00 pm, accompanied by an adult with whom they lived. They’d be allowed to ride bikes or scooters, and play ball, though only with members of their household. Tangible progress! That it came almost exactly a month after the peak in new cases felt a bit like a miracle.
On May 2, adults were let out of the house, permitted to take walks, and go for runs. When they could do so was restricted based on age and vulnerability, with “low-risk adults” permitted to go out between 6:00 am and 10:00 am and/or 8:00 pm and 11:00 pm, while those deemed more vulnerable, and anyone requiring a caregiver was allowed out between 10:00 am and noon and/or 7:00 pm and 8:00 pm, with noon – 7:00 pm still belonging to the kids. And everyone (I also cannot stress this enough) listened!
It was at this point that signs of life began (slowly) returning to the city’s eateries, with a select few opening their doors – though not allowing patrons inside – for takeaway orders. And so it went.
I’ve devoted a fair bit of energy here to the potential crisis facing the restaurant industry in the United States. Initially, the situation in Spain was seen similarly. Both in their role as the settings in which much of local life plays out and as a central pillar of a massive, and consistently growing tourism industry that contributes over $100 billion annually to the Spanish economy, the future of the industry remained uncertain.
In the U.S., aggressive attempts at reopening in the hopes that commerce and consumption will simply ignore COVID-19 have not injected much optimism into some rather grim forecasts for the industry. In Spain, meanwhile, despite quick action from the government to provide aid to small businesses affected by the lockdown and less onerous rent and insurance expenses, as a reopening approached, the same concerns abounded. Business owners and industry observers expected business to resume the imposition of capacity limitation. Combined with the ongoing hibernation of the remainder of the tourism and hospitality industries, with hotels (for the time being, still) closed, and travelers from outside the country mandated to quarantine for two weeks on arrival, the outlook was far from rosy.
Given the unprecedented and disorienting nature of the pandemic, much of that was anecdotal, but it was clear that restaurant owners would be required to invest in some manner of post-COVID precautionary measures – protective shields, the availability of menus via QR code, hands-free sinks and soap dispensers in the restrooms – while, for some period of time, trying to recoup months of lost revenue, from an at least somewhat-nervous locals-only market, at less than full capacity.
On May 18 came “Phase 0.5”, which allowed for the opening of small shops and libraries, the resumption of social and administrative services, and the re-opening of museums and places of worship, at a third of capacity. Restaurants, bars, and cafes were still not permitted to accommodate customers on-premises, takeaway was permitted, and became commonplace. We could at last welcome back the incredible flavors that we’d abruptly abandoned. Lomo Canario… Pizza Napolitano…
On a micro level, we became amateur sleuths, reporting back any signs of life (“so, they’re not open open, but Paco is redoing the floors…”), while harboring serious concerns for a couple of spots didn’t exactly seem to be thriving pre-pandemic.
The following week brought “Phase 1”, and the clearest indication that something resembling “normal” might be on the way: the return of the sidewalk. Beginning May 25, the outside seating areas were allowed to reopen at 50% of capacity, to groups not exceeding ten people at a table. We stopped short of declaring it “party time” (though it occasionally felt like it), but optimism was palpable. It was not lost on anyone that, in a span of two and a half months, Spain had gone from basically being unaffected, to one of the world’s worst-afflicted countries, to gradual improvement, to having a decent, if not yet close up, view of the other side. For as little as most of us did, it was quite an eventful ten weeks!
Then, just over a week ago, on June 8, Barcelona (and Madrid) entered into “Phase 2”, meaning that not only is outdoor café culture back, but we’re also now permitted back into restaurants – at 40% of capacity, wearing masks whenever possible and observing social distancing, with physical menus now a thing of the past, as restaurants will now either post menus on boards, or have them available to scan via QR Code. It’s not where we were at on March 11, but given where we’ve been over the past three months, it’s downright remarkable.
I can delightedly report that, over this six-week reopening period, every local haunt in this pocket of Barcelona has returned. There are significant differences in the economic environments in which they operate and their respective governments’ attitudes to providing aid to small eateries, but that’s not the only factor that’s allowed dozens of establishments that charge under $3 per glass of wine to survive a forced hibernation.
It took genuine commitment, cooperation, and concerted effort for much of Western Europe to even catch a glimpse of the other side of COVID-19. On Sunday, June 14, Spain – again, a country of 47 million – reported forty-eight new confirmed cases of the virus and just 27 total deaths in the preceding seven-day period. Aggressively ensuring that everyone – everyone! – quarantined and had minimal contact with anyone from outside of their household for more than ten weeks, is the reason we’re here at this point.
Sure, now we wait to see if, when, and how badly we are impacted by the dreaded “second wave”, to say nothing of the fact that, as of July 1, non-residents will once be allowed to enter the country quarantine-free. We can only hope that they bring with them tourist dollars and not new cases. However these play out, the preceding months – in the face of total uncertainty and more
than a little fear – we discovered the simple-if-not-actually-easy blueprint for coping and surviving: the realizations that a “new normal” doesn’t have to be relentlessly frustrating, terrifying or miserable… but that, to get there, you do have to take some medicine.