Swiss plan to ask diners for contacts dropped over privacy

FILE - In this Sunday, March 15, 2020 file photo, a closed restaurant in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Swiss government has backed down from plans that were to start Monday May 11, 2020, requiring restaurants and bars to take the names and phone numbers of their patrons as a way to fight the coronavirus, after the plan fell foul of privacy concerns. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, March 15, 2020 file photo, a closed restaurant in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Swiss government has backed down from plans that were to start Monday May 11, 2020, requiring restaurants and bars to take the names and phone numbers of their patrons as a way to fight the coronavirus, after the plan fell foul of privacy concerns. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP, File)

GENEVA – The Swiss government on Friday backed down from plans to require restaurants and bars to take the names and phone numbers of their patrons as a way to fight the coronavirus, after the plan fell foul of privacy concerns.

As Switzerland gingerly emerges from COVID-19 closures, restaurateurs across the country had been facing the requirement, starting Monday, to take down the names and numbers of their patrons as part of efforts to track contacts of coronavirus victims.

But after privacy advocates, restaurant owners and legal experts all cried foul, government officials backed down on their plans, acknowledging that a legal basis didn't exist for such a requirement. They are now saying leaving the information is optional — but recommended.

The flip-flop in a country known for respecting privacy epitomizes the challenges faced by many governments about how to strike the right balance among public health, privacy and livelihoods as they adjust to the new normal presented by the pandemic — and gradually reopen businesses.

In neighboring Austria, Tourism Minister Elisabeth Koestinger said restaurant-goers won't be required to register. They will be asked to reserve in advance, though, so restaurant owners can plan better.

Swiss Home and Health Minister Alain Berset sought to clear up the Swiss conundrum at a news conference Friday, saying a “protection plan” called for operators of restaurants or bars to seek the details of at least one contact person per table in case a coronavirus case turned up there.

“Customers will be invited to participate, give their names, but it will remain voluntary, optional, with regard to data protection,” he said.

Swiss restaurant and bar owners who are eager to reopen had dreaded another requirement as they already faced headaches like staffing uncertainties, doubts about whether customers will show, the need to make disinfectant available and a requirement to increase spacing between tables.