Suddenly the Brussels bubble isn’t so bubbly.
With EU institutions telling staff to work remotely and Belgian authorities ordering a shutdown of bars and restaurants due to the coronavirus, pavements were empty and traffic was light in the normally bustling European quarter of Brussels on Friday.
Around the Berlaymont building, home of the European Commission, a handful of nervous EU officials rushed to supermarkets to stockpile toilet paper and tissues to prepare for “teleworking” from Monday.
Meanwhile, bartenders fretted about the effects of having to shut down their businesses until at least April 3, and beauticians proffered appointment books full of last-minute cancellations.
At Kitty O’Shea’s, a well-known Irish pub near the Commission, there’s usually a continuous flow of officials heading in and out. But on Friday the bar had only a handful of customers, with the look of tourists who had fallen on the place in search of a plate of frites rather than the usual crowd of officials in business attire sharing office gossip over a Belgian beer.
Jack, one of the bartenders, said people would be lining up to queue for drinks on a usual Friday and there would be three behind the bar to serve them.
“Now I’m alone and prepared to shut [down] the bar at midnight,” he said. “It’s really bad because we are losing hours, we’re not getting our wages.”
The staff would get some compensation from insurance but it would be “nowhere near the 80 percent we are going to lose,” Jack said. “We are going to struggle but we hope it’s for the best,” he said
The Old Hack, another well-known drinking haunt in the EU quarter, was closed. At the nearby EXKi snack bar, the only sales clerk on duty said he was offering a 20 percent discount on fresh food ahead of the three-week shutdown.
Café Vergnano 1882, the popular Italian coffee place on the Schuman roundabout, had already stopped serving food altogether.
“There’s an end of the world atmosphere at the Commission. Each time one person sneezes in an office, all his colleagues stare at him with fright.”
Officials working at the Berlaymont said their offices were either deserted due to recent measures to stop the spread of the virus or occupied only by heads of cabinet and others Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called “critical” employees.
“There’s an end of the world atmosphere at the Commission,” one official said. “Each time one person sneezes in an office, all his colleagues stare at him with fright.”
The official also mocked a note sent to the staff by Ilze Juhansone, the Commission’s secretary-general, who said that despite the coronavirus “we should nevertheless also look back and be proud of what we have achieved together” and listed various tasks completed during the von der Leyen administration’s first 100 days.
“We must celebrate the 100 days of the Commission despite the feeling of being left on the Titanic,” the official remarked, also lamenting the lack of coordination between the three main EU institutions on anti-coronavirus measures.
At the European Parliament, some have come up with innovative ways to adapt to working remotely. Daniel Freund, a German member of the Greens group, said he had started making videos at home of the speeches he was supposed to deliver in Parliament.
“I am lost for words. People are doing grocery shopping as if they were living in times of war.”
The Parliament shifted this week’s Strasbourg session to Brussels and then cut it short, without holding any votes. It also canceled its next plenary session in Strasbourg, scheduled for the end of the month, due to the spread of the coronavirus.
On Friday, the Carrefour supermarket on Schuman was the only busy spot in the neighborhood, as many officials and local residents stood in line with bags full of groceries and toilet paper. “I will be teleworking next week and need food,” said one EU official buying pasta and cereals.
The supermarket manager pointed at the half-empty toilet paper section with an air of bewilderment. “I am lost for words,” he said. “People are doing grocery shopping as if they were living in times of war. They buy toilet paper and tissues, but what for? Only schools and bars are closing … Will that prevent them from eating?”
At L’Hair du Temps hair and beauty salon on the nearby Boulevard Charlemagne, 95 percent of customers are female Commission officials. On Friday, the place was empty.
“Almost all of my appointments for hairdressing or manicure are canceled next week,” one of the managers said, “and I’m expecting more calls today.”