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MaRa: Risk that bar restrictions will prompt Covid spread at ski cabin parties

The hospitality lobby chief also characterised the government's plan as cosmetic and not enabling establishments to operate profitably.

Restrictions on bars and pubs are not currently being relaxed, and for the time being will still need to shut off drink sales at 5pm and close at 6pm. Image: Jarkko Riikonen / Yle

Decisions by Prime Minister Sanna Marin's (SDP) government to relax coronavirus-related restrictions on bars and restaurants that chiefly serve food, rather than alcoholic beverages, have not garnered praise from the sector's lobby group.

On Thursday, ministers decided to expand the hours eateries could remain open, extending mandatory closing times from 6pm to 9pm, following expectations that the epidemic situation is calming down.

According to the Finnish Hospitality Association (MaRa), a lobby group, the limited extension does not allow establishments to operate profitably.

"If we had gotten two more hours — like drinking until 10pm and closing at 11pm — we could have invited all employees at eating establishments and it would have been profitable," MaRa's CEO, Timo Lappi, told Yle TV1's breakfast show on Friday.

"The [government's] decision was a big disappointment. It's good that restrictions are being lifted, but the effects of this decision will be rather marginal," restaurant conglomerate NoHo Partners deputy to the CEO, Jarno Suominen, told Yle Radio 1 on Friday morning.

Both Lappi and Suominen pointed to an assessment by the Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) that classified food restaurants as being of low risk for the spread of coronavirus infection, recommending the easing of restrictions for establishments which fall under the low-risk category.

Lappi characterised the government's current plan as cosmetic and not enabling establishments to operate profitably.

At the same time, restrictions on bars and pubs are not currently being relaxed, and for the time being will still need to shut off drink sales at 5pm and close at 6pm.

Lappi: Private parties pose virus spread risk

Lappi said he feared that if the current restrictions continue, there will be a "record number" of private cabin parties in Northern Finland, a popular vacation destination during the upcoming winter holiday period.

A large number of cabin parties, he said, could be avoided by lifting restrictions on bars and nightclubs by mid-February.

"During weeks 8 to 10, there are a lot of young people, especially in northern Finland's tourist centres. If they can't go to nightclubs and pubs, they will party in their cottages," Lappi said.

"Decisions should be made now to [encourage] young people to party in ventilated [establishments] instead of partying in cabins and moving from one cabin to another by taxi. That's where, if anywhere, the virus will spread," he added.

Regional restrictions off the table

Kirsi Varhila, Chief of Staff at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, responded to the restaurant industry's concerns on Radio 1 on Friday morning.

She said a broader lifting of restrictions was not yet possible, adding that efforts were underway to lift the restrictions in a controlled manner to keep the epidemic in check across the country.

"Finland is a big country and the situations are different in different regions. The rest of Finland will follow [improvements seen] in the Helsinki and Uusimaa regions within a couple of weeks. Lapland this week, for example, had the highest rates of occupancy in ICU wards over the past two years," Varhila said.

She added that spelling out restrictions on a regional basis is not currently possible because making assessments regionally was exceptionally difficult.

"[Regionally-bases restrictions] do not have the desired and necessary effect," she said.