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Belgian cafe owner holds sleep-in to protest virus shutdown

Marc BURLEIGH
·3-min read

A fed-up cafe owner in Belgium is sleeping in her premises with little food, in protest at the months-long shutdown of her sector to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

"To remain like this, without working, losing everything -- every day to see you're losing a little bit more -- it's hard," Christelle Carion told AFP as she sat on the edge of her bed, set up beside the bar.

The 48-year-old has been holed up in the closed Amon Nos Autes cafe in the eastern village of Pepinster since Tuesday, to draw attention to the ordeal that she and other owners in Belgium's bar and restaurant sector are going through.

They have been ordered shut since October 19 to counter the second coronavirus wave sweeping Europe, after having been closed for three months for the first wave in early 2020.

From the start of the pandemic until now, Belgium has gone from being one of the worst-hit countries in the world -- with one of the highest per capita Covid-19 mortality rates -- to being among the few EU countries to get a grip on curbing infections.

But Carion -- known in her village by her nickname "Betchette", which adorns the cafe she took over 12 years ago -- said she was seeing possible dates for reopening repeatedly being pushed back, fuelling her desperation.

"Already at the beginning of the second lockdown I had it in mind to show the rage that it's the restaurants and cafes that are always first to get it," she said.

"A time comes that this just has to stop."

She was refusing solid food, getting by on soup, coffee and cigarettes. She hopes that the protest from her army cot, donated by a friend on her second day, will be heard by politicians.

- Struggling to survive -

Although the government is providing financial aid to bars, cafes and hotels -- 2,700 euros ($3,300) a month in the case of Carion, before tax -- that is not enough for many to survive.

Around 40 percent of hospitality establishments were already on the brink of bankruptcy following the first lockdown, according to a survey last year by the Foodservice Alliance.

"A village or a town without a cafe, without a restaurant, without a hairdresser's, without a gym, without kids being able to exercise -- it's a dead village or town," she said.

With the current shutdown being extended time and again, Carion speaks for many in her sector when she says her recurring nightmare in her cafe is "that you wake up and that you have nothing left".

"You don't work for 12 years just to lose everything you have," she said, with tears in her eyes.

But her sunny disposition reasserted itself as she spoke of the dozens of friends -- and customers who have become friends -- who walk by her cafe to wave or exchange a few words of support.

Olivier Bigonville, who frequented Carion's bar on weekends for years with his friends, ducked in to "say hi and to raise her spirits a bit -- that's the least we can do".

"What's she's doing is great," he added. "It's high time she should be able to work again, to have a decent life like everyone. It's serious, what the hospitality sector is going through."

Another friendly face, Viviane Debraz, was direct in her encouragement for Carion.

"I don't think there are a lot of people who would have -- pardon the language -- the balls to do what she's doing."

rmb/arp/kjl