French nightclubs were allowed to reopen this weekend for the first time since being shuttered due to Covid-19 more than a year ago. But between the restrictive new health protocols and a shortage of workers, many clubs remain mired in uncertainty.
It’s 10pm and Alimentation Générale, a nightclub in the east of Paris, has just opened its doors. No one has arrived yet and the dancefloor looks sadly empty, the house lights too bright.
Farid, who has been working at the nightclub for 17 years, is sitting by the bar with an open Corona in front of him. He hasn’t spent a Saturday night here for almost 16 months, since the French government announced the closure of nightclubs, bars and restaurants on March 14, 2020. “We’re a bit rusty,” he laughs.
This weekend may be the grand reopening, but the sector still faces restrictions. Indoor venues are only allowed to open at 75% of their normal capacity and can only accept people with a valid “health passport” – a QR code or certificate proving that the holder has either recently recovered from Covid-19, is fully vaccinated or has had a negative Covid-19 test in the last 48 hours.
Emilie, 29, and her group of friends are the first to arrive, and as the lights dim, the music is turned up. “We’re so excited!” she beams, lining up to get her health certificate scanned. Only one in five people between the ages of 18 and 29 years old in France has been fully vaccinated. She says that the new rules made preparing to go out “chaotic”, as she and her friends had to organise Covid-19 tests in advance.
This is one of the main fears for many establishments.
“It means the public has to really plan before going out – but there’s so much uncertainty with that. Have we taken the right test? Will our health certificates work? Will we be turned away because the venue is already at 75% capacity? People won’t bother; they’ll just go to bars instead,” says nightclub manager Frantz Steinbach, who also co-chairs a governmental committee for the nightlife sector and music industry.
Just one of his 12 clubs in France is opening this weekend. “There’s too much financial uncertainty,” he explains. “It’s simply too risky, and actually costs less to stay closed.”
Just 1 in 5 nightclubs to open
He’s far from alone in this decision. Trade bodies say that only 20% of France’s nightclubs have decided to reopen.
All nightclubs in the city of Rennes in western France are planning to stay closed, writing in an online statement that vaccination rates among their target public are still largely “insufficient”.
A collective of nightclubs in the southwestern city of Biarritz called the government’s authorisation to reopen a “poisoned chalice”, saying that the health regulations presented a “headache” for clubs.
In Marseille, The Trolleybus nightclub welcomed revellers on Friday night, but the new protocol caused complications.
“We actually lost a lot of customers because there were some who didn’t have their health passports, others who refused to take a test, and dealing with that slowed down the queue, so some people left because they didn’t want to have to wait. I’m no doctor, so I don’t know what has to be done in the long term, but I can tell you that over the course of one evening, it’s extremely restrictive and just doesn’t work,” Florent Provansal, the club’s manager, told FRANCE 24.
Reopened – but no workers
Despite those first-night problems and the reduction in capacity – which Provansal said instantly “wipes a quarter of our revenue” – his team were thrilled to be back at work.
“It’s not just the financial side of it. Without work, we’re not ourselves. Psychologically, we needed this,” he says. “Last year, we all lost our jobs overnight. Now the government finally says we can open, we just have to get on with it.”
Other venues struggled to find the workers needed to reopen. Just like in the tourism, hotel and restaurant sectors, the nightlife industry is facing a severe labour shortage.
Renaud Barillet is the co-founder of event and entertainment company Cultplace, which runs eight cultural spaces across France. While the company’s Paris club and concert hall La Bellevilloise managed to retain staff, Barillet says that it was a “catastrophe” for their venue La Fabuleuse Cantine in La Rochelle, which mostly relies on seasonal workers.
“Staff didn’t hang around waiting for us in the face of so much uncertainty. They have to earn money. There were lots of people who retrained to work in different industries,” he says. Trade unions say that half of the industry’s work force has found a job elsewhere.
The government’s timing in relaxing restrictions has also had a significant impact on clubs’ decisions to open or not. July and August typically represent the industry’s slow season, as residents leave cities for the summer holidays.
The government has said it will continue to financially support clubs that choose to remain closed, at least until the end of the summer.
But the months of closure have taken their toll on the industry: of around 1,600 nightclubs in France, at least 200 have closed for good, while some 200 others are on the brink of bankruptcy.
Financial aid for the sector included partial unemployment for workers; help to cover fixed charges such as rent, water and electricity bills; and access to state-supported loans. Despite that, Barillet says that his venues lost 80% of their revenue over the last 16 months.
“The state’s help stopped the industry from haemorrhaging money, but it didn’t reverse the dead loss of 2020,” he says. With the sector still so fragile, he says it would be “suicidal” to take out a loan.
However, Farid at Alimentation Générale says that the business only survived because of a loan, which allowed them to pay off outstanding bills and arrears.
He shrugs, resigned to an inevitable drop in revenue. “We have to accept it. We’re not going to make money like we did before, but we want to be here. It’s worse being closed.”
As Emilie and her friends flood the dancefloor, he smiles and says, “It’s good to be back. We want to make people happy again.”