UTRECHT, Netherlands -- Lisa Gerritsen and Eva Diks were the first guests in six months to be served at Cafe Le Journal on The Neude square in the Dutch city of Utrecht on Wednesday.
First in a long line waiting to be seated, they chose a table in the sun, ordered a bottle of rose wine and glasses of water and were planning to make a day of it.
“We’ve waited so long. We were here at 11 o’clock. Fantastic,” said Gerritsen, a 19-year-old student. “We plan to stay here until 6 p.m.”
The Netherlands on Wednesday became the latest European country to begin cautiously relaxing its lockdown even as infection rates and intensive care occupancy remain stubbornly high.
A curfew that sparked rioting when it was introduced nationwide in January was lifted and shoppers were allowed to visit nonessential stores without making an appointment first, though numbers were limited.
Bars and cafes were allowed to reopen their outdoor terraces for the first time in six months, but some owners weren't happy with the conditions they say will make it near impossible to turn a profit.
The terraces are only allowed to open between midday and 6 p.m. for a maximum of two socially distanced people per table unless they are from the same household.
Alex Celik, owner of the Il Pozzo Italian restaurant on the Old Canal that runs through downtown Utrecht, lamented that he has to close just when Dutch customers want to sit down for an evening meal.
“Midday to 6 p.m. is nothing for the hospitality industry," he said. "Closing at 6 p.m. people will take food and go to the park. It won’t work so well. It would have been much better if we could open until 8 o’clock.”
He showed a recent photo he snapped during lockdown of around 250 people eating and drinking along the canal where he is now only allowed to accept 50 customers.
His comments echoed the country's hospitality lobby group, which has criticized the opening hours, saying guests will leave terraces and move elsewhere, making it more difficult to ensure they stick to social distancing and hygiene rules.
The country’s public health institute reported Tuesday that infections edged higher over the last week to just over 55,000 while hospital admissions declined very slightly. More than 17,000 people are confirmed to have died of COVID-19 in the Netherlands.
After being the last European Union nation to begin its vaccination campaign, the Netherlands, a nation of about 17.4 million people, has now administered around 5.3 million shots.
Gerritsen said she had mixed feelings about soaking up sun and wine while hospital staff were battling the COVID-19 crisis.
“It’s tough for those working in health care that they’re so busy and we’re sitting here on a terrace,” she said. “We are allowed to do it now, but it’s really difficult.”
The reopening came a day after the annual King's Day holiday in the Netherlands that saw large crowds of revelers gather in most towns and cities, most of them ignoring social distancing guidelines.
“We can regulate things much better than that,” said Eddy Schouten, owner of Cafe Het Neutje.
Justice and Security Minister Ferd Grapperhaus criticized the people who crowded into cities for King's Day.
“You can't say ‘I’m going to reclaim my freedom,' because as a society we're all in the same boat,” he told Dutch broadcaster NOS.
For Pamela Kuijper-Hartman and Sven Hartman, Wednesday was important for much more than the reopening of terraces.
The couple got married at Utrecht City Hall at 11 a.m. and then walked around the corner to The Neude where they sat with a small group of guests at socially distanced tables and enjoyed a drink in the spring sunshine.
“Perfect timing,” Kuijper-Hartman said.
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