Drinking After Dark: Lisbon’s Bars and Restaurants Adapt to COVID-19 Restrictions

Lisbon's bars and restaurants are allowed to operate — as long as they adhere to a strict set of regulations. Is it working?

In late June, Portugal responded to a surge in COVID-19 cases in the Lisbon Metropolitan Area by implementing a new set of rules regarding nighttime activity and the consumption of alcohol. These regulations have since been reviewed at regular intervals, and the city’s bars and restaurants have had to adapt accordingly — but it’s not always clear what exactly this means.

Illustration by Bogdan Kamuta

Under the latest incarnation of these rules, updated on September 11 and in effect until September 30, restaurants must operate at 50% capacity, stop admitting customers at midnight, and close at 1 a.m. Bars and nightclubs must remain closed, unless operating as cafes or pastelarias (snack bars). At any of these establishments, alcohol can only be sold after 8 p.m. if it’s “within the scope of meal service.”

In addition, groups are limited to a maximum of 10 people unless they’re part of the same family. At any establishment within 300 meters of a school or university, groups are limited to a maximum of four people until 8 p.m. (to avoid large gatherings during school hours).

The general idea is to keep people from moving around and mingling at bars, instead requiring them to stay in small groups at their tables. In theory, this reduces the risk of contagion while allowing establishments to keep earning revenue.

When asked about how these rules are being enforced, a representative from the GNR stated that “inspections are carried out regarding all current regulations, including this framework of sanctions.” GNR did not provide Atlas with any further details about patrols or the definition of “meal service.”

Despite these ambiguities, the cost of non-compliance can be steep. While individuals may be fined anywhere from €100 to €500 for failing to comply with regulations, businesses are subject to fines 10 times as high.

But plenty of local watering holes are choosing to reopen despite the risks involved. 

Lisbon's terraces are full of people drinking with no food in sight.
People enjoy evening drinks on a terrace in Lisbon.

At least one bar in Cais do Sodré has suffered the consequences. After being fined, they’re now making a concerted effort to comply; they require anyone who orders an alcoholic beverage to also order a “cooked meal,” which in this case amounts to a €2 toasted sandwich.

While one might imagine that other bars would follow suit, it’s clear that not everyone interprets the rules the same way (or chooses to obey them). Several nearby spots are still serving up beers and cocktails, no questions asked and no food in sight.

However, the threat of a hefty fine is not insignificant for many establishments that have already suffered months of lost revenue.

Other places are responding by revamping their menus, refocusing their advertising, and rethinking their business models to meet the new requirements.

One such place is O’Malta, a small bistro located in the Arroios district. Its owners decided to rebrand O’Malta Bistro Bar as O’Malta Bistro Restaurant, even changing the name displayed on their front window.

O'Malta Bistro has changed their business concept to focus more on food than drinks.
Photo courtesy of O’Malta

According to co-owner Sylvia Hink, “In marketing I have to be careful to promote food, to avoid people [thinking] we are a ‘bar’ only. We have had the police checking our restaurant license and whether we were serving food on two occasions. They were actively checking which table was eating what… The officers were very nice, but I have no doubt that they [would have given] fines if we did not comply with the rules.”

Sylvia also points out that some places are trying to avoid the rules, but doesn’t see the advantage: “For us, the fact that people have to order food has a positive outcome of not having very drunk people in the bistro, and the amount of money spent per person is a bit higher. This is very important for us, as we have half the [usual] number of tables.”

Crafty Corner, an artisanal beer bar located steps away from the iconic Pink Street, has also had to adapt. Alan Gollo, its manager, says that the main action they had to take was changing licenses and getting different permits, but this proved unproblematic.

As he sees it, “At the end of the day, I think it’s quite easy to make everyone follow the rules. We have to understand that the rules are there for everyone’s safety so we can go back to normal as soon as possible.”

Pink Street is packed on a Saturday night in Lisbon.
Pink Street is still packed on a Saturday Night, but the vibe is decidedly different.

Alan also stresses that “we need more government support. There’s a lot of people losing their jobs, so it’s time for the EU to step up and help small and local businesses.”

Sylvia from O’Malta agrees that the worst part of the current situation is the lack of financial support from the government.

In spite of these challenges, the city’s bars and restaurants are doing their best to resume operations. The result is a quieter, calmer version of the pre-pandemic nightlife scene that’s light on crowds and heavy on late-night snacks.

Perhaps this new version of Lisbon after dark will make it possible to reinvigorate the hospitality industry without plunging the city back into confinement; only time will tell.

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