Bar manager Susanne Baró Fernández: “The processes in conventional bars are almost indistinguishable from those in restaurants”
from Jan-Peter Wulf
Credit: Timber Doodle
Although her bar has been shut down due to the pandemic and there do not seem to be any prospects for reopening soon, no one can accuse Susanne Baró Fernández of sticking her head in the sand. The operator of the ‘Timber Doodle’ in Berlin-Friedrichshain has developed a template for a wide-ranging hygiene concept entirely off her own bat. It is meant to serve as both a proposal and an example for bars and restaurants to maintain safety and protect against infection while also ensuring the well-being of customers and employees, even under the difficult conditions prevailing today. She is convinced that bars are also capable of complying with the strict conditions imposed on restaurants that are reopening. Even so, bars are still being given a red light. Jan-Peter Wulf had a talk with the bar operator.
Susanne, as it currently stands, bars and pubs are still prohibited from reopening. Whereas guarded optimism can be detected in the restaurant trade, even with the strict regulations they must currently satisfy, it appears to me that the bar sector is slowly succumbing to resignation. Is this also what you've been seeing?
It certainly is. There is a feeling of hopelessness that is leading to desperation. It isn't just that no one is able to reopen yet – in most German states, even the possibility of reopening has been put off indefinitely. As a result, no one currently knows when, or even if, they will be able to open for business again. According to pronouncements at the Berlin Senate’s most recent press conference (editor’s note: on 12 May), for example, it appears that events with as many as 250 people will be allowed to take place before bars are even permitted to open. Not knowing when things can get up and running again makes it extremely difficult to keep up the struggle to maintain your business. It’s not possible to calculate or estimate just how long of a dry spell one needs to get through – or even whether it might be time to simply pull the plug.
What is your opinion about the red light being given to bars and pubs, even as restaurants are being given a green light to reopen under strict conditions?
I think that the distinction being drawn is not a clear one, and I believe there is no sound legal basis for it. The decision to allow eating establishments to reopen on account of their role in satisfying basic needs is certainly the right one, and they deserve preferential treatment. So far, so good. But if a restaurant also offers the opportunity to enjoy an alcoholic beverage without ordering anything to eat – and that’s not at all unusual – it results in essentially similar establishments being treated unequally. The processes in conventional bars in particular are almost indistinguishable from those in restaurants. As long as the bars remain closed, I expect people to transfer their bar visits to restaurants and hotels, since they regularly also offer cocktails and spirits. For that reason alone, the ban on bars opening is ineffectual. The argument that everyone always returns to is that social distancing rules would not be adhered to as a result of alcohol consumption. Yet these rules do not seem to cause any problems in restaurants when beer is consumed there. That’s why I would much rather see more attention paid to the number of patrons being served and the particular characteristics of the food or drinking establishment than to the name on the sign – regardless of whether food is being served.
Let us stick with the topic of alcohol for a moment. A bar sells this in the form of spirits in drinks – there’s no disputing that. Now let’s say that you were allowed to reopen your bar tomorrow. What would you do to ensure that proper distances are maintained when people are drinking?
Firstly, when we reboot my bar for the new situation, it will only seat ten people instead of the usual 25. That’s tough, but there's no avoiding it with distancing rules. There will be three tables for two people and one table for four. My bar generally only attracts people who savour their drinks. In other words, my customers come here to enjoy each drink, rather than to get drunk. They normally have two or three cocktails and stay here about two hours on average. Two cocktails contain about the same amount of alcohol as two 0.2-l glasses of red wine. That’s one aspect. Apart from that, space limitations mean that I will be working with a system of reservations for fixed time slots – seats can only be reserved for one hour and 45 minutes. These time restrictions themselves help to prevent excessive consumption.
You have developed your own, extremely detailed hygiene concept and shared this on social networks. Among other things, it recommends that all patrons be seated, doing away with self-service, adding hygiene stations and access controls, and naturally implementing distancing rules. As I understand it, the entire concept is suitable for use in bars, is it not?
I run a bar myself, and this was always in the back of my mind when I developed the concept. There is nothing in it that I would not be able to implement in my own bar. It goes without saying that we would prefer it if there were no such restrictions, but we have no choice but to live with the coronavirus and we must protect the health of our patrons and employees. Bars can ventilate their premises and spread out their tables just as well as restaurants can, and they have always been under an obligation to stop serving alcohol to anyone who is inebriated.
When we last spoke, the Berlin Senate still had not got back to you regarding the concept you submitted. Has that changed in the meantime?
Unfortunately not. Neither the mayor, the RKI nor the health department has got back to me. It is a real shame, because as bar and restaurant owners we want to help and engage in dialogue. We want to find out what they think of our ideas from the standpoint of infection biology, and we want to continue improving our concepts. According to sources at DEHOGA, my concept was presented yet again in their meetings, and I’ve seen that it has already been downloaded from our website more than 300 times all over Germany.
In Düsseldorf, the Minister of Economic Affairs of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia visited a restaurant to obtain an on-site demonstration of how hygiene measures are being implemented in actual practice since business reopened. What could industry figures – bar operators such as yourself – do to demonstrate the measures they have taken in order to get things moving?
We could do the same thing. I know, for example, that Berlin's Senator for Economic Affairs has received an invitation from a trade journal to visit a Berlin bar for just such a demonstration. The latest word is that Ms. Pop has not yet been able to respond. It was for this very reason that I drew up my hygiene concept – to get bar and restaurant owners thinking and to help them prepare. The delivery times for hygiene products can be extremely long right now, so those who have been devoting their time and energy to ‘rebooting’ should already have some changes to show for their efforts. I, for one, am ready to start
By ensuring hygienic conditions you are also protecting your employees. What things are particularly important here?
Unfortunately the State of Berlin has been very lax in the way it has drawn up its regulations, and most of the rules are focused solely on protecting customers. I believe that employees are every bit as deserving of protection, and other German states have done more here. In concrete terms, we're talking about spit guards for bartenders at mix stations, mandatory hygiene stations for patrons, pandemic training for staff, airing out premises at least once every two hours, free gloves and masks for personnel, small fixed teams to minimise the danger of the entire staff being subjected to quarantine, and, naturally, keeping a list of customers. This is still not mandated in Berlin, yet it can be a great help should something occur, as it allows customers and employees to be contacted quickly so that they can isolate themselves. At the end of the day, you’re dealing with the same information you need to reserve a table.
Right now it's spring, the time when bars and restaurants like to move their operations outdoors. Lithuania’s capital Vilnius has decided to make even more space available outdoors for its food and drink establishments this year, and this model is now also being tested in Berlin, Cologne and other cities. It appears to be a good idea, as not only is the risk of infection lower outside, but they can also serve more customers this way. Wouldn't this also be a good idea for bars – if they are actually allowed to reopen?
Transmission of the virus is significantly lower outdoors, so the concept is certainly worthwhile. Berlin’s people are particularly fond of sitting outside when the weather gets warmer, and it goes without saying that food as well as drinks can be served without difficulty in special areas in front of an establishment. The routes employees have to take must always be considered. If reaching the tables requires crossing a street, there is a certain level of danger involved. We also cannot treat outdoor service as a solution to all our problems, absolving governments of their responsibility to offer other financial support to the industry. After all, outdoor business is always at the mercy of the weather. Otherwise there is no reason not to pursue this path.