Coronavirus

Six Iconic Landmarks That May Be Shuttered By COVID-19

Founded a century (or centuries) ago, these businesses survived world wars and economic depressions. Now the pandemic could close them forever.

Cafe Florian reopened in June, but it's future is very much in doubt
Benjamin Witte

PARIS — New York City's Roosevelt Hotel, a midtown mainstay that first opened to the public in the roaring 1920s, is now a not-so-distant memory after closing its doors — permanently — just before Christmas.

Like so many businesses around the world, the nearly century old facility — famous, among other things, as the place where then New York state governor Thomas Dewey erroneously declared victory over President Harry Truman in the 1948 U.S. presidential election — is a victim of the times. The grand old hotel survived the Great Depression but not, as it turns out, the revenue loss caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The economic and financial costs of the current health crisis are being felt far and wide. But there's something particularly poignant about the demise of businesses that enjoy true landmark status, places that are cultural cornerstones in our communities.

Owners and employees pay the heaviest cost, of course. But for clients, culture and the public as a whole, what's at stake in each case is also a tangible piece of history that, once gone, is gone for good:

Is the festa in Venice over forever?

By the time the Roosevelt Hotel opened, in 1924, Venice's venerable Café Florian had already been going strong for more than 200 years. And this past December, it officially reached the three-century mark. That's a lot of candles!

But rather than mark the milestone with some kind of celebratory festa, all was eerily quiet. Sadly, the doors of Café Florian's elegant lounge — whose famous clients included Nietzsche, Grace Kelly and Margaret Thatcher — were closed to the public, as ordered by the government. More troubling still is that they could remain that way even if Italy's current lockdown measures are lifted.

"We pay around a million (euros) a year in rent to a private landlord and the State. The private sector has exempted us from half of the part of it, the State nothing," the owner told La Vanguardia. "We will stay open as long as we can, but more than that we cannot guarantee."

A Mexican treasure

Across the Atlantic, the pandemic has also forced the closure — for now at least — of another historic hangout spot with a penchant for attracting celebrity guests.

Mexico City's Sálon Los Angeles, the country's oldest dance hall, was founded in the 1930s during the height of the swing and Charleston dances, and its famous patrons include Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky and Celia Cruz.

The ballroom was redecorated in the late 1940s — the era of chachachá and mambo — with mirrored columns and neon colors. Then owner Miguel Nieto Hernández also gave the sálon its iconic motto: "Who does not know Sálon Los Angeles, does not know Mexico."

And yet, there's real concern now that the place may not survive. Current owner Miguel Nieto is struggling to keep up with expenses, despite receiving some aid money from the government. Dedicated customers are also helping in the form of small donations. "In the Sálon Los Angeles, we have learned that we must live life as intensely as if we were to die tomorrow and as prudently as if we were going to survive," Nieto told the Mexican daily El Universal.

The meter is running in London

Survival is also the name of the game these days for London's iconic black cabs, which were facing an existential crisis even before the pandemic due to stiff competition from ride-hailing apps like Uber.

Now, with few tourists and many Londoners working from home, they're struggling even more. According to the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, the number of active black cab licenses has fallen from more than 18,000 to just over 14,300 since June.

London black cab — Photo: Hanno Rathmann

The so-called "army of black cabs' is now pinning its hopes on the UK's vaccine rollout — and in more ways than one. As reported in the Financial Times, drivers are offering fixed price-rides for vulnerable and elderly to medical centers.

So far it's unclear if the government will take them up on the offer. The other question mark is just how long the classic cabs can hold out. "I can't even begin to describe it to you; dead is underplaying it," Howard Taylor, a taxi driver for 33 years, told the newspaper. "The city is bereft, it is desolate. It is like tumbleweed."

Going down the drain in Hungary

London isn't the only place lamenting the loss of tourists. Hungary is hurting too, especially its network of thermal baths, which have been an integral part of the country's culture since the Romans invaded.

Now, with border closures limiting the number of foreign visitors, and older clients reluctant, for safety's sake, to return, as many as two thirds of these spas might be facing closure.


"By the summer, 40% of our yearly revenue was gone, and by the end of the year, 70% of the revenues will disappear at some of the spas," Attila László Boros, head of the Hungary Spa Association, told the Chinese media outlet CGTN. Estimates are that of the 18,000 people employed in the industry, up to 4,700 face layoffs.

A San Francisco treat

Across the world, the COVID-19 outbreak has also pushed countless restaurants over the proverbial precipice, including the famous Cliff House Restaurant in San Francisco, California.

Known for its stunning view of the Pacific Ocean, the iconic eatery weathered many storms since it first opened more than 150 years ago. It even caught fire — twice — including once on Christmas Day.

But what it couldn't cope with, in the end, was the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Unable to sell it's high-priced seafood, the Cliff House closed its doors for good last month. More than 100 gathered to watch the restaurant's iconic sign being taken down. Somewhere, Mark Twain, who dined there on multiple occasions, is turning in his grave.

The future of the building itself is unclear, and will depend on the National Park Service, which had leased the land to the Cliff House owners since the 1970s.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California is lobbying for the structure to be preserved. In a statement, she encouraged "the National Park Service to explore all possible opportunities to maintain the historic role of this building as a restaurant and visitor destination. Our history is too important to set aside so readily."

True indeed. Even if responding to today's emergency is the first priority, we should remember that history can never be rewritten.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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