Gables of traditional Dutch architecture of canalside buildings in Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, … [+]
Think Holland and immediately images of bicycles, windmills, cheese and tulips may come to mind. But living in my adopted city of Amsterdam during the coronavirus pandemic has surprisingly helped deepen my connection with this city. The change in routine has unveiled the incomparable charm, resilience and fragile vulnerability of things that I may often have taken for granted.
Currently, The Netherlands is on a ‘Smart Lockdown’ where residents are not mandated, but strongly encouraged, to stay at home. This policy is being followed without incident by the vast majority of residents who stay indoors but venture out for quick trips to get food, medicine or to exercise.
Two Dutch police officers ride bicycles patrols pass a sign urging people to practice social … [+]
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To reduce the spread of COVID-19, non-essential businesses are closed and social distancing restrictions have been put in place. Any group of more than two people who do not maintain 1.5 meters of separation, and who are not from the same family, face fines of up to 400 Euros. Additionally, major annual events like King’s Day and the Amsterdam Gay Pride Parade have been cancelled through the summer.
GRINDING TO A HALT
It started with reports of COVID-19 cases in the south of The Netherlands, that slowly multiplied. By early March, the government had quickly implemented measures to limit the spread of the virus.
First, restrictions on public gatherings of more than 100 persons were announced. What followed was a constant stream of email notification pings to my inbox from theatres, cinemas and music festivals announcing cancellations or amendments to previously booked events.
As the number of cases spread throughout the country, stricter measures were put in place. Schools, gyms and non-essential businesses were eventually officially ordered closed and public gatherings were then altogether banned. Restaurants and eateries are only allowed to provide delivery and take-away service.
After the official closure announcement, a buzz of excitement filled the air that first Monday. Children, thrilled about the impromptu school holiday, and adults, initially pleased about the prospect not having to commute, settled in to life at home.
As the reality of homeschooling and working from home became the norm, the buzz gradually gave way to an uncommon silence that fills the day and night as new routines set in.
Before the coronavirus restrictions, streets would have been humming with the lively reassuring sounds of life – bikes, the occasional car horn and lively chatter – as residents went about their daily commute during the day or in the evening as friends gathered to socialize.
AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS – 08 APRIL: View of empty streets and Royal Palace during the Corona Crisis … [+]
But, gone are the delightful squeals of scores of children playing at the daycare next door. Replaced, instead by the occasional chuckle from the handful of children who still attend. Even though schools are officially closed, not all children have the option of staying at home.
“While we are officially closed, two of our three locations remain open for children whose parents work in vital sectors – like doctors, nurses – as well as at-risk children who would otherwise be in danger if they stayed at home.” explains Oya Yavuz, owner of Oya’s Childcare.
“The government has promised support for the childcare industry which has also allowed us to maintain staffing levels with increased attention to disinfecting and behaviors to reduce the risk of infection” she further elaborated.
Gone too is the excited chatter that punctuates the silence of the night as groups friends or pairs of lovers, walking hand-in-hand, make their way home from some just-concluded performance at the theatre around the corner.
LIFE AT HOME
Restrictions on restaurants are making chefs out of ordinary residents as we rely daily on our own culinary skills for our meals. Consequently, the demand for groceries has increased. More people are ordering more than usual and supermarkets, which were initially overwhelmed, have had to adjust quickly.
Online delivery which is normally a quick and convenient option for grocery shopping in Amsterdam saw an overnight increase in demand. Unavailable delivery slots stretching for weeks into the future have made this an almost impossible option to replace in-store shopping.
Measures were put in place in stores to ensure that shoppers keep a distance of 1.5 meters away from each other. To protect the more vulnerable, many supermarket chains also designated a special hour in the morning exclusively for elderly shoppers.
I did not experience busy chaotic crowds, but here was a sporadic absence of some food items from supermarket shelves due to restocking delays – pasta and eggs were absent from my regular supermarket; flour, select canned goods, and dairy products from others.
AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS – MARCH 14: Empty shelves are seen at a supermarket on March 14, 2020 in … [+]
“There was hoarding at some point that increased demand by up to 50% for individual products” explained Jose Matthijsse, Managing Director, Cheese Retail Europe for FrieslandCampina, a major multinational dairy cooperative. “This was not seen in fresh products like milk and yoghurt, but for products like cheese which have a longer shelf life. Since cheese also has a longer production time of 4 weeks, it was more difficult to quickly replace depleted stocks.”
Behind the scenes, safety stocks of some items provided a buffer that helped supermarkets to maintain a consistent supply of products on their shelves. However, many producers had to quickly increase staff to manage increased demand while also, in some cases, contending with factors like longer wait times at the borders that inevitably impacted distribution times.
Despite the disruption to our daily routines, there is also a very strong feeling of appreciation for medical workers and those battling COVID-19 on the front lines. I felt the spirit of bonding and gratitude that enveloped the city by joining other homebound Amsterdammers in applauding healthcare workers from the balconies or windows of our homes; listening to church bells pealing loudly as a sign of hope; and singing out passionately to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” from our homes as broadcasters simultaneously streamed the tune – a popular song for fans of the local football team, Ajax – to spread positive cheer.
AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS – 2020/03/26: A female driver seen being tested for COVID-19 Coronavirus at a … [+]
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
SPRINGTIME IN HOLLAND
Warming temperatures, green leaves returning to trees, the shedding of drab winter coats and increased boat traffic on the canals usually signal the return of spring. I moved to Holland in springtime, so each year, this special season brings the eager anticipation of new beginnings.
But this year, there were also constant reminders for residents to stay indoors and resist the urge to enjoy the season in the usual way with group outings and gatherings. Boating on the canals was banned on particularly warm days and holiday weekends like Easter.
Along with the incessant dings from the bells of impatient bicycle riders, springtime in Holland typically ushers in the start of tourist season. Crowds of camera toting visitors from all over the globe descend to visit famous sites, eat Dutch delicacies and admire, among other things, the dense carpets of colorful tulip fields that stretch for as far as the eye can see.
Scenes from the 2020 Keukenhof floral display.
Keukenhof gardens, the crowning jewel and showcase of the beauty of the Dutch floral industry is normally open for only eight weeks each year to millions of visitors. This year, for the first time in their seventy year history, the gardens are keeping their gates closed because of the restrictions on events and large gatherings.
Instead, the spectacular display of seven million bulbs which were already planted by gardeners last fall is being experienced in a different way. “While we can’t bring the fragrance, we are instead bringing the beautiful images as something positive to the world” explains Bart Siemerink, Director of Keukenhof, on the move to open the gardens to the world by streaming the tulips virtually.
Sadly, the fertile fields are currently bursting with flowers that in most cases, apart from the fragrant freshly-cut bunches that fill vases in local homes, have no where to go. Border closures and other logistical issues will prevent the majority of this year’s yield from being exported.
LISSE, NETHERLANDS – APRIL 13: A general view of the Tulip Farm Fields next to the Keukenhof … [+]
THE ECONOMIC IMPACT
I could also see for myself the economic impact brought on by the pandemic’s restrictions. Interest in my own company’s business continuity services has increased as business owners of all types seek advice on protecting their operations, pivoting their business models and setting themselves up for a good start when restrictions are lifted.
This is a shift in interest from our work with families in businesses to ensure their generational continuity. While communication, governance and succession remain important for the long term existence of family businesses, the focus for many is now on surviving in the short term.
Mirroring trends from around the globe, companies in the tourism, hospitality and retail industries are being hit particularly hard. Many businesses and institutions including museums and cultural centers are also feeling the strain.
Chairs are piled up in a closed cafe terrace on Leidseplein in Amsterdam, on April 16, 2020, amid … [+]
ANP/AFP via Getty Images
The government, in response, is rolling out a number of subsidies and programs to assist various sectors of the economy. Support was announced for business owners, freelancers, crucial cultural institutions and the agricultural industry among others and incentives are being discussed for other segments.
But government support will not be enough to keep every business in operation. “Some investors still have an appetite to invest in relevant industries,” reveals Joost Bergen, Fintech advisor and investor. “Many are looking at the companies in their own investment portfolios and addressing continuity vulnerabilities before they consider looking at new investments” he goes on to explain.
The Netherlands has become home to a growing start-up scene which is also being impacted. “The need for financing is there. But instead of seeking growth financing, many startups and scale-ups will be looking for bridge financing” says Simone Brummelhuis, Director of Borski Fund.
In the race to find solutions to the new medical and economic crises resulting from this pandemic, flexibility, collaboration and quick decision making are crucial. Fortunately, some of the groundwork for this level of cooperation has been laid in recent times. “In the last couple of years, there was great focus by the government on the startup scene and increased networking between funds. We are building on that momentum in working together. Decision making is now quicker which helps us in the crisis to find solutions.” expressed Brummelhuis.
AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS – 2020/04/16: A man rides a bicycle while wearing a face mask as a preventive … [+]
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My scarlet red bicycle stands in quiet solitude, chained to the pedestrian bridge over one of Amsterdam’s many picturesque canals; for once, not a prop in a passing social media influencer’s impromptu photo shoot. The pandemic, it seems, has done what neither freezing temperatures nor government restrictions on short term holiday rentals could have done. Tourists are long gone.
Instead, I am now treated to elegant displays of swans, and geese that gracefully glide along the quiet canal waters unbothered by tourists or passing canal boats. As I contemplate this scene of nature’s serenity and the imminent lifting of coronavirus restrictions, I am gently reminded of the words from Keukenhof’s Bart Siemerink, “Everything, depends on nature”.