Hungarian restaurant workers protest lockdown restrictions

Protesters gathered in a central square in Hungary’s capital, Budapest, to demand a rethink of the country’s coronavirus lockdown restrictions

Organizers of the protest in a central Budapest square called on restaurateurs to break pandemic rules by opening their businesses to customers on Monday, in defiance of strict pandemic measures limiting restaurants and cafes to take-out service.

“All the tools we have used so far have run out, so from now on every business should open in the spirit of civil disobedience,” protest organizer Aron Ecsenyi said.

The protest came amid growing calls for government action from Hungary’s hospitality sector as the country’s lockdown, which began on November 11, nears the three-month mark. The Hungarian government has insisted that only mass vaccination of the population can end the lockdown.

Pandemic restrictions were extended Thursday until March 1, with many business owners complaining that they have received little or no financial assistance promised by the government, while other businesses like shopping malls and retail stores were allowed to remain open.

Some business owners have resorted to opening in secret to avoid closing permanently. Krisztian Baliko, who owns a restaurant in the town of Szekesfehervar, 65 kilometers southwest of Budapest, had planned to open his business to in-person service on Monday, along with nearly 200 other businesses across Hungary who were also planning to open illegally, according to a count kept by the organizers of the demonstration.

But Baliko’s plans changed after the government tightened penalties on Saturday for breaching pandemic restrictions: Police can now order offending businesses to shut down for six months to a year and can impose heavy fines between $4,000 and $17,000.

“People would go against the government’s decision, but the retaliation they are threatening – month-long closures, bigger fines – is something people cannot afford if there is no no way to make money,” Baliko said at the protest.

Health experts and politicians have also started pushing to rethink pandemic restrictions as the economic impact on the sector worsens. In 2020, Hungary’s hospitality sector shrunk by $1.4 billion and just over a quarter of the $68 million set aside by the government for wage support for restaurateurs has been paid out so far.

Tamas Soproni, mayor of a district in downtown Budapest and member of the opposition party Momentum, pleaded for more financial support for hotel businesses and for the opening of outdoor terraces in restaurants, cafes and bars. He argues that the consequences of the lockdown go beyond economic hardship.

“We are talking about the victims of the pandemic, but we are not talking about the victims of the restrictions that are in place,” he said. “We’re not talking about how it affects people’s minds, how it affects relationships, how it might affect people who tend to have winter blues.

Health expert Dr Zsombor Kunetz is also advocating for the gradual lifting of some restrictions, proposing that outdoor terraces be open to customers with sufficient social distancing and the opening of indoor dining rooms with capacity restrictions and mandatory use of better quality FFP2 masks.

He recommended that the government take action to manage the growing discontent before it spirals out of control.

“From an epidemic management point of view, it is very dangerous for people to take the lead and start opening illegal pubs and restaurants where customers might turn up,” he said. “So this pandemic could explode very quickly.”

Protest organizer Szilard Ecsenyi said Polish and Italian hospitality entrepreneurs have embarked on similar campaigns to open up their businesses and pressure governments to negotiate pandemic restrictions. .

“We are fighting for a compromise,” he said. “There is a need for mass resistance and civil disobedience, and I believe those struggling right now will hear our voice and join us.”

Laura T. Thrasher