An intimate dinner on the waterside, by flickering candlelight, isn’t a dream in the Netherlands, even though restaurants are currently shut: Amsterdam-based arts centre Mediamatic wants to use greenhouses as corona-safe private dining spaces and its first proposed dates are booked out already.
It’s just one example of innovative thinking in a country where 17.4 million people have been asked to respect an “intelligent lockdown” since mid-March.
Museums, schools and most hospitality venues are shut and large events banned, but bikes are on the streets, dog owners take frequent walks, and many shops have remained open.
And the country’s entrepreneurial spirit hasn’t been dampened. “Like everyone else, we are insecure, the government tells you to close shop and everything is in the balance,” says Willem Velthoven, founding director of Mediamatic. “A main theme for our art centre is working with sustainability and the greenhouses were already there so we said, let’s see if we can use them for hospitality.”
Economist Mathijs Bouwman categorises the Dutch approach as somewhere between light-touch Sweden and heavy-handed Spain, aiming to preserve something of the prosperous pre-coronavirus economy and respect the Dutch dislike of unbendable rules.
“We expect people to act with some common sense: you don’t need a permit to go outside to the bakery, as in Paris,” he says. “The main reason not to close things down is economics, and the second is that we know that the Dutch are not really capable of following rules unless they intrinsically feel themselves that the rules make sense.”
In a country where the government no longer has a majority in either house, it hasn’t all been trouble-free. Coronavirus tests have been severely limited and the RIVM government health institute admits that deaths are likely to be higher than the official count of 5,056. After the first sunny weekend saw crowded beaches and parks, a visibly angry Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced a ban on adult groups of more than three, €390 fines and more local powers for mayors to shut risk areas.
But although there have been some 5,500 fines issued, it looks like the strategy is working. The official death curves are flattening, the RIVM believes the vital R-value measure of infections per person with coronavirus has been suppressed below 1, and Mr Rutte has announced that primary schools will reopen on May 11. The key message, he said, is taking baby steps towards “a 1.5 metre [socially-distanced] society”.
The AMHC Westerpark children’s hockey club in Amsterdam was one of the first to reopen to its 1,500 members on April 29. “It’s great to restart training for the kids and see them come off the field with red faces, all happy, to the parents waiting outside the gate, which is a new thing to be corona-proof,” says chairman Floris Harm. “I think [the government] has managed to make the lockdown bearable, but it has been something to get used to, especially working from home in a third-floor apartment in Amsterdam with three kids getting on your nerves.”
Many businesses have praised local government for being open to innovation during this period as well as offering bailouts and a €10 billion salary support scheme. Jeroen van Vliet, sales manager at Flexotels, used to rent 250 portacabins as hotel rooms for events; now, the business has converted them into hygienic visitor cabins for care home residents. “The government has been open to ideas from industry and we haven’t had to get local permits,” he says. “It’s the Dutch mentality, being innovative and learning by doing. You have to see what you can do, not what you can’t.”
Restaurants are finding their own ways to survive. The luxury RIJKS restaurant, for example, has created a pick-up service with video instructions for creating its signature millefeuille of beetroot and green gazpacho at home, and is now going “on tour” to other cities. “This whole crazy crisis means chefs being super creative,” says chef Joris Bijdendijk.
The government’s next steps will be closely watched for signs of backsliding. Software simulations by Utrecht University’s Dr Roland Geraerts show that the public transport system can only safely cope with 15%-20% of the normal load if people have to stay 1.5 metres apart. “People will get anxious and could be aggressive so I expect problems there,” he says, observing that the government has been reluctant to recommend facemasks due to shortages.
After years of complaining about over-tourism, Amsterdam is now keen for visitors to return as soon as possible. Meanwhile hairdressers, masseuses and sex workers are waiting to hear when they can start business again.
“This will be the worst recession we have had since the Second World War, I promise that,” says Bouwman. “But if we somehow manage to save the structure of the economy with allowances and state aid, and things are looking better on the virus side, then it will be easy to start up again.”