Submitted by: Laurynas Braškus
Have you ever seen an outdoor café sprawled across an entire city?
You just might see one in Vilnius, especially with the city declaring that it’s taking a step further in helping the cafés and restaurants, which have been allowed to reopen this week as part of Lithuania‘s gradual exit from coronavirus lockdown.
Vilnius has experienced a gastronomic boom in recent years while also trending as an intriguing travel destination for foodies hungry for something new. Culinary experiences like food halls and markets, street food stalls and food trucks, craft beer bars and high-end restaurants have become part of the city‘s identity for locals and visitors alike. Therefore, helping this industry in difficult times is among the city’s priorities amid relaxed lockdown rules. According to Lithuania’s Health Ministry, cafés and restaurants that choose to recommence operations must follow strict physical distancing rules and safety measures.
Seating is only allowed outdoors, and clients seated at different tables must be at least two metres apart. Strict safety requirements, combined with the narrow streets of Vilnius’ UNESCO-listed Old Town – which can often only host a couple of tables per establishment – have made restaurant, café and bar owners pessimistic about the prospects of reopening.
However, Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius responded to these doubts directly with a support package from the city. “Plazas, squares, and streets – nearby cafés will be able to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season and thus conduct their activities during quarantine. Just open up, work, retain jobs and keep Vilnius alive,“ Mayor Šimašius said on 24 April, the day after the government announced the easing of quarantine restrictions. “Of course, the top priority remains safety for all,” he added. Vilnius’ public spaces – which until now have rarely been used for outdoor eating, such as the city‘s iconic Cathedral Square – are now open for this activity to support the city’s restaurants going through difficult times.
Currently, 18 public spaces have been put on offer, with the possibility to add more in the near future. The announcement was met with enthusiasm, both from café owners and citizens of Vilnius, who are longing to return to their favourite cafés after weeks of lockdown. “Vilnius’ offer to help our cafés and restaurants came just in time,” says Evada Šiškauskienė, Head of the Lithuanian Association of Hotels and Restaurants. “This additional space will help them accommodate more visitors and bring life back to the city streets without violating security requirements.” As of today, more than 162 cafés, bars and restaurants have applied to inhabit the city’s public spaces with outdoor seating.
The City of Vilnius has come up with another initiative that will end up benefiting local restaurants. In celebration of Lithuania’s National Day of Medical Workers on 27 April, the municipality decided to thank its medical staff by giving them some €400,000 worth of restaurant vouchers, which they can use at restaurants across the city. The gesture serves as a big thank you for their tireless work while bringing even more business to the city’s restaurants, many of which have been severely affected by the coronavirus lockdown.