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Swiss plan to ask diners for contact information dropped over privacy concerns

GENEVA (AP) — 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.

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In an interview published Friday in Le Temps newspaper, hours before the government reversed course, Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner Adrian Lobsiger said there was no legal basis to require restaurateurs to obtain personal data from diners. He reluctantly admitted the government could still create such a legal basis, by using emergency powers.

“It’s not ideal, I’ll admit,” he said. “Creating such an obligation, even with a solid legal basis, is not good insofar as there’s naturally the risk that people will provide false information.”

The government is seeking the information as part of “contact tracing” — keeping track of who goes where, when, so that the outbreak can be monitored.

Those measures weren’t feasible when case counts were spiking in Switzerland, with hundreds of cases being confirmed each day. But at 8 a.m. Friday, Switzerland counted just 81 more confirmed cases from a day earlier, raising its total in the outbreak to 30,207 confirmed and 1,526 deaths. Restaurants have been forced to close for weeks, but Monday marks the reopening for them and also for most schools and businesses.

Even though it can’t be enforced, the government urged Swiss diners to leave their details anyway.

“The optional provision of personal details is important to allow for contact tracing, in case an employee gets sick,” a government information released Friday said. “Customers thus have every interest to provide their details.”

Restaurants still face other new rules. Groups, with the exception of families, will be limited to no more than four people; tables must be at least two meters (more than six feet) apart, unless a divider separates them; patrons will need access to disinfectant or soap and water upon entry, among other things.

Berset said he had no plans to go to a restaurant himself, for the moment.