Feature | Late-night alcohol sales ban hits Tallinn, Tartu bar owners hard
Late-night alcohol sales have been banned in several Estonian counties in recent weeks including the three most populated – Harju, Tartu and Ida-Viru counties - following coronavirus outbreaks. ERR News caught up with bar owners and managers to see how the ban has affected them so far.
On Friday, the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) lifted the restrictions in Tartu County which has been in place for several weeks after a cluster of outbreaks which began in bars and nightclubs.
Restrictions were also removed Põlva, Valga and Võru counties – which had temporary bans ahead of last weekend's Rally Estonia event – on Monday morning. However, bans in Harju and Ida-Viru counties restricting the sales of alcohol between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. are still in place.
One common complaint from bar owners was how quickly the bans were put in place, often with little or no notice or clear communication.
Luke Teetsov-Faulkner, of the Sveta Baar in Tallinn's Telliskivi district, which also hosts music events, told ERR News: "We discovered the law change, which came into effect on the Saturday, pretty late on the Friday evening."
"We are taking every day as it comes. Checking the daily infection rates, border restrictions and doing what we can to protect our staff and customers is paramount. The last thing we want is another lockdown or anybody to get sick," Teetsov-Faulkner said.
The Harju County ban was put in place on Friday, August 28, with the decision made by the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), to run from the Saturday evening. The ban coincided with several events taking place in the capital or nationwide that weekend, including Tallinn Music Week (TMW), which had been moved back to late August from its traditional spring slot due to the pandemic.
"We were extraordinarily busy with TMW, as we had events Thursday, Friday and Saturday;" Teetsov-Faulkner went on.
"With sound checks for both local and international artists, light and sound production, venue cleaning both inside and out as well as general bar stock replenishment, our team were pushed to the limits to provide the standards each event required and deserved.
"Once we had clarification of the new guidelines that had come into effect, we immediately adhered to them and have continued to do so. It was unfortunate it was so sudden, as it seemed to panic the vast majority of international guests and the TMW event we had scheduled for months in advance for the Saturday was all of a sudden only able to serve alcohol till 11 p.m."
Tartu County was the first region to be hit with the ban in early August, following an outbreak traced to a nightclub in Estonia's second city in mid-July, and linked to outbreaks at other entertainment establishments.
A group of bar and restaurant owners in Tartu voluntarily shut up shop for several days, as coronavirus infection numbers continued to grow.
While the ban was lifted on Monday morning, it had been in place for almost a month.
Veiko Raime, co-owner of the Möku bar in Tartu told ERR News: "The problem for us isn't so much the sales ban from 11 p.m., or that we are opposed to certain rules to avoid the spread of the virus. The problem here is the level of respect and communication towards entrepreneurs.
"Sending last minute messages via the mass media, and not having a two-way conversation, is not something we can work with easily."
Better communication in future would be more helpful, Raime said.
"We and our clients will be fine, and we will enjoy what we do even if we have to close earlier. But we could do with a heads up sometimes so that we can make our plans for the future."
James Ramsden, co-owner and manager of the Pudel Baar in Tallinn's Telliskivi, echoed the lack of communication, plus the ban coinciding with a busy weekend.
"I understand the principle of the law, but the practice of communication was confusing," Ramsden said.
"Hearing by word of mouth, on a busy Friday night, during TMW, isn't really the best way to try and plan my business opening hours. An official statement the following Monday would have been the best solution."
The alcohol restrictions are imposed by the PPA, which in turn is under the auspices of the interior ministry. But where PPA personnel conducting checks?
"We had the police visit us on the weekend [of August 28-30]. One of the officers told me we had to stick to the COVID-19 rule which dictates 50 percent maximum capacity inside. But I thought that had ended? If the rules are unclear, then of course they won't be adhered to, and this is why people, whether intentionally or not, don't follow them," Ramsden said.
Sveta Baar's Luke Teetsov-Faulkner said explaining the changes to customers had also been hard.
"It was difficult to explain to a customer who had purchased a ticket for an event that finished much later [than the ban started], especially when it was us telling them about the new regulation for the first time. But the event was happening, the bands were booked, the guests were there. What else were we supposed to do? The uncertainty and panic it caused among people was the most unsettling part. Since then, we have adhered to the 11 p.m. curfew though," he said, adding that the bar is waiting for updates on the permissible hour when alcohol can be served, something which is subject to a weekly review.
"We would, of course, like to have had more of an open dialogue with the authorities to see what we could do together to better deal with peoples safety rather than be treated like we don't care and are just reckless alcohol vendors," he added.
"We know the vast majority of our customers, and have maintained solid communication regarding the current global pandemic. Nobody wants things to get worse here and to the most part, people have acted responsibly. We have a lot of cultural events which mean a lot to the local community, we're not just a party place where nobody cares about anything."
James Ramsden at Pudel said little seemed to have changed from earlier lockdowns at the peak of the pandemic in spring.
"I said the last time, the perfect case scenario would have been for each bar or restaurant to receive a pack in the post or via a download, containing clear and concise rules, printable signs for displaying to the public, and access to an information line. The same goes this time around. If we're expected to comply to rules at the drop of a hat, then there should be some handholding from the official side too."
Sveta's Teetsov-Faulkner said: "A huge amount of work goes on behind the scenes to curate and deliver a versatile program at Sveta,"
"We have been trying so hard to achieve a standard of entertainment that any major European city would be proud of. Tallinn Music Week is a very important event in our calendar as it showcases our business on an international level and can cement both our and Estonia's reputation to a broader audience which has huge benefits to us for future endeavours."
Teetsov-Faulkner said, the situation is really one of survival at present, having had to cancel, at short notice, late-night events including the bar's own third birthday party, with both performing artists and the bar itself out of pocket, while overheads remain constant.
The ban has met with controversy from quarters other than those with any obvious skin in the game as well, mostly over its implementation, including Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise, who has questioned its legality.
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Editor: Helen Wright