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‘Visit shops, and eat out’: Costa’s words as Portuguese lockdown eases

40visit shopsPrime Minister Antonio Costa is encouraging the Portuguese to visit shops and restaurants after the government eased confinement measures that helped limit the coronavirus outbreak while damaging the economy.

Costa went for lunch in central Lisbon on Monday of this week to mark the reopening of restaurants, with capacity limited to half, as the country started the second stage of a plan to relax restrictions. Costa and other European leaders are trying to strike a delicate balance between reviving businesses while averting a second wave of infections.

“The measures we had to adopt to contain the disease had a brutal effect on our economy,” Costa said. “It will take some time for people to regain the confidence to eat out again.”

On Saturday, Costa walked down one of the main shopping streets in Lisbon and said on television that stores were ready to welcome people back after taking all the precautions recommended by health authorities. Although Portugal has been less affected by the outbreak than neighbouring Spain, it’s also paying a heavy price for the lockdown. The European Commission expects Portugal’s economy to shrink 6.8% this year

The country reported 173 new coronavirus cases on Monday, taking the total to 29,209. Daily infections have been below 270 for the past 10 days.

Masked waiters served a trickle of customers sitting safely apart at newly-opened cafes while some pupils returned to school at staggered times during Portugal’s start of a second phase of exit from coronavirus lockdown.

Still, an abundance of rules to prevent a new wave of infection – such as capacity limits for restaurants – showed life was still far from normal.

On the cobbled, pedestrian streets of Lisbon, usually packed with tourists on a sunny May day, businesses competed for the few Portuguese customers heading out for lunch.

“It’s been complicated,” said Miguel Mendes, manager of a normally packed cafe and restaurant off busy Rua Augusta, which was serving a dozen people on Monday after surviving on takeaways for the last two months.

“We made less in a week than we would on one good summer’s day,” added Mendes.

A 20-minute tram ride down the road, staff equipped with masks and visors at famous custard tart shop Pasteis de Belem squeezed sanitiser onto the hands of customers, at least spared the usual long wait by the lack of tourists.

“Tourists were 50% of our clientele, at times more,” CEO Miguel Clarinha said. “But what matters is having customers, and our Portuguese customers are very important to us.”

Emboldened by the slowdown of cases – now at 29,209 confirmed with 1,231 deaths – the government’s second phase also includes opening kindergartens, shops up to 400 square metres, museums and art galleries.

Portugal’s tourism-dependent, export-oriented economy suffered huge losses under lockdown, with gross domestic product (GDP) contracting 3.9% between January and March compared to the last quarter of 2019.

Some 115,000 people have lost jobs.

“The effect of the lockdown on our economy has been brutal,” Prime Minister Antonio Costa said on Monday outside the central Lisbon restaurant he had chosen for his first meal out.

The Socialist government is discussing with opposition parties further stimulus after so far providing 6 billion euros worth of credit and funding for salaries, as well as suspending rents for vulnerable households and cash-strapped firms until September.

But credit lines and rent will need to be repaid, and businesses fear they will not make enough in coming months to cover costs and pay back debts, let alone make a profit.

“The truth is that it is not enough. And the expenses are always there … water, electricity,” said Jorge Costa, manager of Leitaria restaurant.

Students in the last two years of high school returned for face-to-face classes from the morning, lining up outside school gates for temperature checks before going in.

“These safety measures make sense. You have to have them because we need face-to-face classes to prepare for exams,” said Bernardo Cruz, 17, as he waited to get in to Dom Pedro V Secondary School. Gloved and masked staff handed out face gear to students who had forgotten theirs.

“I’ve been dying to get back to classes … we are used to understanding physical looks, expressions,” added maths teacher Dulce Sousa at the same school. “I hope they learned something online but nothing substitutes a teacher.”