Croatia returns to cafe life despite COVID-19 resurgence, vaccine shortage

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon and the terraces of bars and restaurants in the center of Croatia’s capital Zagreb are teeming with guests. As if there is no coronavirus pandemic, people are casually chatting and incuriously enjoying their drinks.

After a three-month shutdown, on March 1 the government allowed bars and restaurants to reopen, and the terraces throughout Croatia filled up quickly.

“We have regular customers and they are really happy to come, sit down with their friends for a chat, drink a cup of coffee and get back to their routine,” Marko Benkovic, a waiter at the Kavanica cafe here, told Xinhua.

Last year was exhausting for the people working in the country’s service industry. The first case of coronavirus in the country was recorded on Feb. 25, 2020. And on March 19, the government shut down all bars and restaurants as part of the anti-COVID measures, which lasted until mid-May. In November, when the number of new COVID-19 cases spiked, the authorities introduced a new lockdown, which is still partially in force.

Many caterers were dissatisfied with the measures, which they considered illogical and unfair. They even staged protests around the country, arguing that the exemption for food delivery services did not ease their situation and that the catering industry was witnessing a 70 percent downturn.

On March 1 this year, bars and restaurant terraces were allowed to reopen on condition that they follow the strict social distancing rules.

“Most people respect the epidemiological measures. We all have a common interest, which is to end the pandemic as quickly as possible,” Benkovic said.

Since the first lockdown, the Croatian government has introduced measures to support the economy and save jobs. For businesses that could not operate during the lockdown, or whose turnover has dropped more than 60 percent, the government offers a monthly allowance of 4,000 Croatian kuna (621 U.S. dollars) per worker. This measure has saved many jobs last year but, as Labor Minister Josip Aladrovic recently said on national television, the state budget has its limits and the budget for this support may not last long.

Before the pandemic hit the country, Croatia had run budget surpluses, but for 2020 an eight percent deficit is projected. The European Commission expects Croatia’s economy to grow 5.3 percent in 2021.

Jelena Tabak, president of the National Association of Caterers, told Xinhua that the government’s initiative to save jobs was “fantastic,” but it was not enough to help businesses remain sustainable.

“The situation is extremely difficult. Almost half of all caterers are in financial straits,” she said. Tabak stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic has hardly hit caterers who had already been struggling due to the country’s high taxes.

“Many people have had to leave the service industry. This will be a lasting crisis and I believe that we will be back in full strength only in 2023 or 2024,” Tabak added.

Marko Benkovac, a waiter in Zagreb, commented that it has become hard to find a decent waiter. “Many have left the business and moved into the construction or information technology sector,” Benkovac said.

During the past year, over 267,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in this southeastern European country of four million, and nearly 6,000 have died of the disease. Although the terraces filled with people in Zagreb suggest normality, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Croatia is on the rise again.

Last week, the number of new cases increased by almost 50 percent compared to the week before. The authorities are urging people to act responsibly, while the counties are implementing new lockdown measures.

Meanwhile, the vaccination campaign has been marred by supply delays. To date, over half a million vaccine doses have been delivered to Croatia, with more than 400,000 doses already administered. Around 300,000 people have received both doses.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said last week that Croatia would try to offset the shortage by securing additional vaccine shipments from Pfizer. By the end of summer, he noted, Croatia aims to catch up with the other European countries in vaccination.