The idea for “Papas a lo Ayuso”, a potato-and-egg homage to Madrid’s regional president, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, came to restaurateur Paco Garrido as he spoke to colleagues in other regions about the Spanish capital’s comparatively lax Covid restrictions on restaurants and bars.“They all said the same thing: ‘I wish we had a president like yours,’” said Garrido, whose Andalucían restaurant La Barca del Patio serves between 20 and 30 orders of the dish each day.Díaz Ayuso’s resistance to imposing tight Covid restrictions on bars and restaurants has pitched her into an increasingly bitter fight with the coalition government of socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez. It has also turned this polarising member of the centre-right People’s party into a kind of secular saint for the hospitality industry — and quite the opposite for those who believe her policies have had deadly effects.Madrid’s policy has become a campaign issue after Díaz Ayuso called a snap election for May 4. And it has even led some Barcelona restaurateurs to admit to envying the capital and its leader, a sentiment rarely expressed in a left-leaning city where there is significant support for Catalan independence.
A video that circulated recently on social media showed a group of Barcelona restaurant owners chanting: “Ayuso, come here”. “It doesn’t surprise me. It seems like the reaction of business people who are tired of their government and how it treats them,” said Roger Pallarols, who heads Barcelona’s restaurant union, the Gremi de Restauració. “Madrid has shown that you can manage the health crisis without deepening the economic hole.”
Spain has been one of the countries hardest hit by the Covid pandemic. Madrid has been the epicentre with 14,564 official Covid deaths, some 1,200 more than in Catalonia, which has about 1m more residents.But comparative infection and death rates have converged over time. Today, Madrid’s infection rate, at 279 cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days, is still one of the highest in the country, but similar to the 206 cases in Barcelona’s region of Catalonia.At the same time, Madrid’s restrictions have been some of the most lax in Spain. And that has shown up in restaurant incomes and closures. In the city of Madrid, restaurant sales in February were 53 per cent of the level in the same month in 2020, compared to 37 per cent in Barcelona, according to credit card sales data collected by Banco Sabadell.That gap has held relatively steady over the past six months, except when it grew to 50 percentage points in November, when the Catalan government had bars and restaurants closed for 38 days. About 30 per cent of Barcelona’s bars and restaurants have closed for good, Pallarols said, while that number is 20 per cent in Madrid, according to Antonio Galán Alcázar, president of Madrid’s AMER restaurant union.
These differing fortunes have led to an outpouring of industry support for Díaz Ayuso in Madrid.
On Calle Ponzano in the Chamberí neighbourhood, bars and restaurants have hung matching signs reading: “We are all Ayuso. Thank you for taking care of us.” Joaquín Capel, co-owner of Pizzart, said his chain of three restaurants in central Madrid added the Madonna Ayuso pizza to the menu because the regional president “knows that restaurants aren’t at fault for the infections, that they principally come from contact in homes”.After the local election was called, a group of restaurateurs gave permission for a video filmed to support Madrid restaurants to be used by Díaz Ayuso’s campaign. “This woman has kept us alive. How am I going to say she can’t use it?” said Jorge García López, the third-generation head of Taberna San Mamés in the Rios Rosas neighbourhood.
Restaurateurs in the Spanish capital have suffered during the pandemic, of course. Taberna San Mamés’s income is down 40 to 45 per cent, while business is off between 30 and 40 per cent at La Barca del Patio.But the mood in Barcelona’s hospitality industry is one of desperation. While the closing time for Madrid’s restaurants and bars was pushed back from 9pm to 11pm in mid-February, opening hours in Barcelona were not extended until March 8 — and then only from 3.30pm to 5pm.“They give us crumbs. It’s like, ‘Here, we’ll give you 90 more minutes.’ It’s impossible. You can’t survive like this,” said Mariano Calonge, owner of La Piazzenza, a pizzeria with two-locations near the Sagrada Familia cathedral.Calonge, who has temporarily closed one of his restaurants, has 20 employees on Spain’s full furlough scheme and another 15 on the scheme part-time. He has been losing money for a year.The contrast between the situation in the two cities has led to grudging admiration for Díaz Ayuso among restaurant owners in Barcelona.“Restaurateurs I know and all of our suppliers, absolutely everybody, from all sorts of political backgrounds, think she’s amazing,” said Kate Preston, owner of Barcelona’s Taller de Tapas chain who, in the last year, has permanently or temporarily closed four of her nine restaurants. “Covid figures for Barcelona and Madrid are about the same. So, you know, in the end, you can’t argue with that.”Not everyone in Barcelona is convinced that Madrid has cracked the virus code, however. Uge Ribera, who ran Cal Pinxo in beachfront Barceloneta until she shut her family’s restaurant for good because of the limited hours and drop in tourists numbers, said: “I think it’s madness what you see in Madrid, but they say we’re almost the same so maybe they should permit it here. I don’t know . . . I’m an at-risk person. I have a lot of respect for the virus.”