It was the first day of summer weather. I was outside at a cafe, getting ready to meet with a friend about a project we would work on through the spring. I was also preparing to celebrate: I had recently received a job opportunity with a highly-respected chef in Athens, and would be signing a contract to do some consulting work on a cruise line over the summer.
Soaking in the sun for what would be the last time before writing this, I got the first in a fateful series of emails from a client who was preparing for a dearth of customers and a resulting crippling financial blow. Understandably, my job was on hold indefinitely, and just like that my position as an unemployed freelancer was solidified for the foreseeable future.
COVID-19 fear seemed to sneak up on Greece. Everybody knew it was happening in Italy, but for some reason that seemed far away — almost as far as China. This attitude is not exclusive to Greece, of course; it’s a sentiment that rings true around the world. Nothing is as real as when it’s at your doorstep.
But if you ask restaurant owners, you’ll hear something different. They knew it was coming. I work with several chefs here in the city, one of whom mentioned a frightening dip in business during a meeting that took place a full week before coronavirus was the main topic of conversation in the city. People were already anxious about going to restaurants, and in Athens, that’s saying something. It’s part of the culture here to gather for food, drinks, or even just coffee. Communal experiences are the norm. But fear had started to sink in, meaning that tables were left vacant long before the city went into quarantine mode.
Since Monday, March 16, restaurants have been closed to the public. Some still offer delivery services via Greece-based apps like Wolt and Efood, but results are mixed. Many took their restaurants off the apps, while others who did not previously cater to delivery demand are now unable to list their establishment on the apps.
As a result, Athens is nearly unrecognizable in recent days. People were still loitering in the squares in small groups, but the cafes have long closed and the government has now instituted a full lockdown, after initially just encouraging everyone to stay home and “cocoon,” as Prime Minister Mitsotakis said. Now, you have to send a text message to an answering service that will supply a code allowing you to leave your house if for an essential reason. The vibrant, always-chattering city has fallen silent, as people wait and wonder if they will still have their jobs on the other side of this crisis.
Greece has seen this level of uncertainty in its not-so-distant past, during an economic crisis that caused many small businesses around the city to shutter. Those that did survive may have only barely scraped by. At last, a significant uptick in restaurant openings over the past year seemed to be ushering in a new and exciting period of growth for the city.
Unfortunately, this growth is already seeing a massive slowdown as tourism evaporates — one quarter of employment in the country is tied to the travel industry. Economists are projecting a best-case scenario economic growth of less than 2%, and it could even slow down to .9%, essentially a grinding halt. This also messes with the conditions of its bailout; Mitsotakis has already asked that the budget calculations exclude any necessary expenditures related to the virus.
The question of how Greek small businesses and restaurants will bounce back is one that echoes around the world. They can expect some portion of a large stimulus plan with more help on the way. But will it be enough? Will customers be able to afford to come back? And when will help even arrive?
This isn’t a completely unique situation, as many are already making difficult decisions to close before the losses add up too much. In the U.S., FEMA will be distributing loans to affected small businesses, while workers in New York are petitioning for emergency unemployment benefits for people who are furloughed, among other measures.
Coincidentally, I was recently revisiting Anthony Bourdain’s book Medium Raw. When I arrived at the chapter entitled “The Fear,” I reread it several times. It talks about the 2008 economic crisis and its effects on the restaurant industry, detailing how many places shuttered, including those that once seemed immune to the pressures of the outside world. It was scary to see these unflappable institutions, helmed by famous, seemingly untouchable chefs, go under.
But at the same time, Bourdain describes a new wave of creativity, one that was partially born of necessity. He quotes David Chang’s article in Esquire, one that proposed ways for restaurants to make choices about ingredients that would ultimately make them more financially stable. He summarizes, “Hard times…might actually help push us in a direction we were already coming to think we wanted to go.”
In this case, it may not be creativity around ingredients. Maybe we’ll create new methods of supporting small businesses, redefining how communities can rally around them to help them out of very scary times. Maybe in this case, “The Fear” is going to be bigger, and to combat it we’ll have to be more creative and willing than ever. In Greece and around the world, I’m hoping this combination of support and resilience will get everybody through.