Chef Maïté Légasse was thrilled to open a new cafe in St-Pierre-Miquelon earlier this month. The first week of business was great.
The next week, she had to close shop.
"It's quite difficult to handle," she told The Telegram. "We had a tremendous week for the opening. People were here all day long."
Much like it is everywhere else in the world, life is far from normal these days for residents of the small French colony, officially considered an overseas collectivity of France. Consisting of two islands (with about 90 per cent of its population living in the capital of Saint-Pierre), St-Pierre-Miquelon is located 25 kilometres west of Newfoundland. While there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 amongst its population of just over 6,000, the local government has taken a number of steps to address the situation.
As is the case in Newfoundland and Labrador, a lot of people who can do so are working from home. Schools are not open, and a lot of business and facilities are closed. People generally are not leaving their homes much, and social distancing — or "distanciation sociale" as people in St-Pierre-Miquelon would call it — is encouraged.
Ferry service between St-Pierre-Miquelon and Fortune on the Burin Peninsula was suspended March 16, and there are currently no flights to and from the local airport. However, flights are due to resume Friday, April 3, to accommodate people trying to return home.
Légasse has been able to reopen Ma P'tite Cocotte Café, offering take out service while taking extra steps to keep surfaces clean for customers as required right now under law. It's helping her stay afloat, but Légasse reckons she is only doing about one-third or half the business she would expect under normal circumstances.
"If we have a case here, we're going to close for a time," Légasse said.
Malika Halili is the tourism director for the local government, known officially as the Collectivité Territoriale de St-Pierre-Miquelon. Like many others, she's getting used to working from home while keeping company with kids off from school. She's never experienced anything like this in her lifetime.
"It's really, really new for us," Halili said. "We try to organize our work to protect the operators, but it's not easy."
Tourism is a big deal for the two islands. There are approximately 60 businesses linked to the industry, with 80 per cent of visitors coming from Canada. Air Saint-Pierre started offering direct seasonal flights from Paris in 2018. There were 24 cruise ships scheduled to visit St-Pierre-Miquelon this year. Only three of those cruises have cancelled visits so far, but Halili expects there will be many more to come.
"The tourism season is really, really important for the tourism operators — accommodations, restaurants, activities — and it's so important for the shops and everything that goes around tourism," she said. "It's really a big, big industry, and (COVID-19) is happening at a bad time for us ... We don't think people will have the mindset to organize a trip this summer."
Marion Ughetto owns and operates SPM Easy Stay, a small travel agency and reservations platform she started in 2018. Her concerns mirror those of the tourism director.
"I think people will travel less, because so many people are losing their jobs," she said. "People will have to focus on their own families and finding new jobs. It's going to be hard for everyone."
Similar to what is happening in Canada, France is developing programs to help workers and businesses make it through
this tough economic climate brought on by COVID-19. Ughetto is waiting to see what comes down the pipeline for business owners, but if it's nothing more than favourable loan opportunities, she will probably steer clear of it. She has children and is fortunate to have a job beyond her own business. Ughetto expects there are people living in St-Pierre-Miquelon at risk of losing everything.
"For me, (a loan) it's not an option," Ughetto said. "I will see if there's any immediate help ... I've put money aside to reimburse people, their trips and everything. For that, I'm good. But I still don't know right now what's going to happen to my company."
Légasse said the loss of the summer season for a business like hers would be disastrous.
"We can't do anything, since it's all around the world," she added. "It's not only St-Pierre-Miquelon that's impacted. It's a disaster for the entire world."