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The city that became an open-air café
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A crowded street in Vilnius on 6 June 2020
Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, has opened up public outdoor spaces to cafés and bars to boost the local economy, but the move has created conflicts as well as benefits.

“It’s the fourth morning in a row that I’m cleaning and collecting hundreds of scattered outdoor tables into a pile,” complains Asta Baškauskaitė as she cleans up the square near Halės Market in the Old Town area of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. 

The market itself, and several squares nearby, have been turned into unofficial nightclubs, and the tables are left out when partying ends in the early morning hours. Discarded plastic cups blow around as Baškauskaitė, a Lithuanian-American businesswoman and local community leader, tidies the area so that pedestrians can walk through it. 

“Some bars whimper about a lack of employees, not enough to collect the tables at night. I show them a picture of the tables I’ve collected and say, ‘I’m 60 and I collect them in 20 minutes’,” she says. “I want to set a good example for bar owners.” 

Vilnius, known for its historic Old Town filled with winding medieval streets, has made headlines with an initiative to boost the local economy during the Covid-19 lockdown – turning the city’s streets and squares into a giant, open-air café.  Local establishments have been allowed to use public spaces for business in order to reduce the indoor-space crunch.

Vilnius has become nothing more than one big outdoor bender - Asta Baškauskaitė

Some business owners have benefited from the bonhomie, calling it an economic lifeline after months of hardship. But some residents are deeply unhappy with the move, calling it a short-term initiative that has affected the city’s liveability. "The campaign about Vilnius as a giant open-air café is disinformation,” says Baškauskaitė. “Vilnius has become nothing more than one big outdoor bender.” 

Cities around the world are trying to work out how best to safely revive pandemic-hit economies – but, as is the case in the Vilnius model, it’s not so simple to offer a solution that musters wide local support. There are many variables at play, and trying to forge forwards with no historical model to look to is a delicate balancing act. 

From lockdown to deregulation 

Lithuania has been hit comparatively mildly by the Covid-19 virus; by the beginning of August it had had over 2,000 cases and 80 deaths. Its lockdown lasted for three months, from 16 March until 16 June, but restrictions in some parts of Vilnius were lifted much earlier. 

On 22 April, the Covid-19 Emergency Centre said that outdoor bars, cafés and restaurants were allowed to reopen as long as they met strict requirements including restricting customers per table and maintaining social distancing. 

A day later, the office of Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius announced an unprecedented move: the city would provide public spaces to outdoor catering establishments for free. The pre-existing rigid and confusing permit procedure was replaced by a simple registration process. "We haven’t measured the financial results yet, but about 400 outdoor cafés have already responded to our invitation," said Adviser to the Mayor Karolis Žukauskas in a Facebook message shortly afterwards.

Bars serving a few light snacks have found it easiest to take advantage of the new policy

Bars serving a few light snacks have found it easiest to take advantage of the new policy

At first, business was slow during the day. But at night, happy customers flocked from all around Vilnius to the historic centre for a stress-relief drink in the new outdoor environment. “Vilnius is so alive for the first time in my life,” said one young drinker, Justas, as he partied on Savičiaus Street, one of the most crowded in Vilnius. 

Not all residents responded warmly, however. Daiva Dambrauskienė, a civil engineer in her 40s, has been monitoring the impact on Savičiaus Street, where she lives. Pointing at an environmental pollution monitoring device by her window, she says, "Drunk [and smoking] crowds create more air and noise pollution than cars.” 

Before lockdown, several hundred regular visitors to five bars operating in the street already disturbed local residents’ sleep. When the use of outdoor space was deregulated, residents’ fears of a worsening environment materialised. “It was impossible to get home through the visitors to these bars during the first week, day and night,” says Dambrauskienė. “No-one cared about distancing here.” She says police disregarded their complaints about smoke and noise before lockdown, and subsequently took no interest in distancing violations, either.

Should we have punished those who crammed around one table? - Aurimas Boza

At the start of the shutdown, Lithuania’s parliament set fines for quarantine violations at between €500 and €6,000. But there were no clear instructions on how to police outdoor establishments.  

Aurimas Boza, deputy chief of Vilnius’ Old Town police department, says that during warm weather, police focused on violations in nature, parks and around lakes. In many cases, he explains, officers didn’t know exactly what constituted a violation. “The distance of 2m was set for legal entities, meaning businesses, but not for people sitting in outdoor cafés. Should we have punished those who crammed around one table?” 

Other offices responsible for overseeing restrictions in catering establishments, the National Public Health Centre, the Labour Inspectorate and the State Food and Veterinary Service, confirmed they carried out their inspections during their own working hours, i.e. when all the bars were closed. 

‘We wouldn’t have survived’ 

One area that has been overtaken by the outdoor café initiative is the square in front of the National Philharmonic building, where historic architecture has been obscured by a sea of café umbrellas and around 200 tables. 

“We’re not regulating outdoor dining locations now, although under normal circumstances we would,” says Gerda Ožiūnaitė, head of Vilnius’ branch of the National Department of Cultural Heritage. Previously, every small detail – umbrellas, banners, lights or furniture design – had to be authorised. Now, with the changes, there’s no need to comply with the strict Regulation on the Protection of the Old Town. Ožiūnaitė admits that some new outdoor installations spoil the aesthetic qualities of the Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but says that "it’s temporary. We’ll introduce order at the end of the season”.

In some places tables, chairs and other hospitality infrastructure have taken over areas valued for their cultural heritage

In some places tables, chairs and other hospitality infrastructure have taken over areas valued for their cultural heritage

It’s been particularly easy for bars that, at best, sell a few light snacks to re-open after shutdown; these establishments represent more than half of the businesses that have signed up to the outdoor scheme. The owners of the bars temporarily located in the square say that the municipality’s decision to deregulate outdoor seating saved them. “We wouldn’t have survived one more month of the lockdown,” says Linas Starkus, a former punk-rock vocalist and the owner of the bar Spiritus, unofficially known as the ‘tequila and mescal embassy’ in Vilnius. 

Mayor Šimašius voices similar sentiments, telling the BBC that “giving away public spaces to outdoor cafés saved many businesses and improved the emotional state of city dwellers. I remind you that no one could even think about indoor gatherings then, so that is why life moved to the streets, including restaurants”. 

Initially, some Old Town residents sympathised with businesses and endorsed the municipality’s initiative. Others were trying hard to stay positive in the name of reviving the economy. But empathy ended on 18 May, when bars and cafés were allowed to open up indoor space – yet the outdoor trading endured, and continues today. Now-impatient residents say people party until 0400 almost every morning, despite city regulations stating businesses operating in public spaces should close at midnight. 

‘Illusion of vibrancy’ 

Another unhappy faction are the owners of the nightclubs and live music venues that form a key part of the city’s cultural infrastructure. 

“Those measures in Vilnius’ Old Town may have helped someone, but not the concert venues. They forgot us,” says Giedrius Aškelaitis, owner of the Kablys, a nightlife-culture hub connecting subcultures and age groups, offering diverse activities including a skatepark and design markets, hardcore parties and pop art shows. "We haven’t received any of the help promised by the municipality yet.” These venues were only allowed to fully reopen at the beginning of July. “Now we are invited to apply for €5,000 in relief funding, but we have to continue paying 50 employees, so that wouldn’t help us anyway,” says Vaškelaitis.

I hear of these bars making several times higher profits than usual, but it’s nothing alike for restaurants - Rasa Lapinskienė

The outdoor café campaign didn’t save the city’s high-end restaurants either, which had a much more complicated time opening after lockdown. Half of the 20 top-ranked dining establishments in Vilnius haven’t re-opened, and it seems that at least a quarter never will. Rasa Lapinskienė, who owned four restaurants and had to close one of them, claims that people are eating out less and instead opting just for a drink. “I hear of these bars making several times higher profits than usual, but it’s nothing alike for restaurants. From my 80 employees, I kept only 20,” says Lapinskienė.

The mayor's office says allowing hospitality establishments to move outside saved livelihoods

The mayor's office says allowing hospitality establishments to move outside saved livelihoods

Mark Harold, who in 2014 became the first non-Lithuanian member of Vilnius City Council, and who leads the association representing Vilnius’ nightlife, evaluated the outdoor campaign in the recently published Global Nightlife Recovery Plan, a collaborative practical guide to saving nightlife industries by academics and activists around the world. He says the city, by focusing on one kind of nightlife option and creating the “illusion of vibrancy”, ended up reducing public support across the broader hospitality sector. “The measures failed the major players of the local economy and worked just for bars in a few major Old Town arteries,” he says. 

‘Hear more from citizens’ 

The mayor describes the outdoor café initiative as “very successful” and his advisor says the decision to continue the campaign until the end of the season was made “to help businesses climb out of losses”. 

Evalda Šiškauskienė, president of the Lithuanian Hotel and Restaurant Association, the country’s most powerful hospitality alliance, thinks that the initiative attracted more customers, adding: “Additional spaces for outdoor cafés proved to be useful, mostly because it helped to maintain 2m distance.” Raimundas Pranka, head of the Association of Bars and Cafés, which represents small businesses, says he believes that the initiative helped business stay afloat but acknowledges that the municipality did not consult him on it. “Even if it resulted in more competition to me, it was a very good initiative and I am glad about it,” he says. 

Tomas S. Butkus, an urbanist, humanities PhD and poet, has a different perspective. He suggests that cities need to become more resilient so they can withstand crises, and that creating this kind of resilience, or social immunity, requires engagement with communities, rather than top-down policy-making. “Chaotic outdoor cafés are much better than an empty city but if Vilnius wants to build economic and social resilience, it needs to hear more from its citizens,” he says. 

Since 1 August, masks have become mandatory at some indoor locations in Lithuania again, amid concerns infection rates are rising. Indoor cafés remain open, but could be closed any day. Some businesses feel safer because they can use deregulated public spaces. For the next few months at least, unless municipal officials modify their policy, the peace of mind of Old Town residents will hinge on the virus-case curve.

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