A second wave of Covid-19 infections could hit Nepal, health professionals had been warning since mid-March. But the government didn’t heed their warning. Instead of deploying its resources immediately to prepare for a new surge, officials spent valuable time and resources on organizing programs to attract the masses, rather than urging the members of the public to wear masks and maintain social distancing.
When the government finally woke up from its slumber, it shut schools and colleges from April 19. Even then it took almost a week for the decision to be implemented completely. There were reports of schools flouting the government diktat even as high case positivity and even death rates were being recorded among the young population.
On the same day, the government also targeted the sector most vulnerable to any kind of government intervention. Restaurants, bars, pubs and nightclubs were ordered to shut down by 8pm every day. The decision brought mixed reaction from the general public, with most expressing concern over the implications of the decision. They don’t see a valid reason behind the decision as everything else in the country was operating like normal.
“Does corona virus spread only after 8pm?” many people questioned on social media.
“There is a crowd everywhere in Kathmandu. There are people everywhere. Even the government is organizing mass gatherings. The vaccine centers are crowded with no social distancing. Why only target night businesses?” Tamang asked, unaware at the time of the impending restrictions that would shut down everything “non-essential.”
Tamang also informed that restaurants and bars in Durbarmarg and Thamel employee around 14,500 people who will now suffer the consequences of the restrictions. The revenue generated by these businesses amount to billions of rupees per annum. And the investments are huge. “Still, instead of letting us operate with safety measures and in half the capacity, the government decides to shut us down before everything else,” Tamang says.
The idea to shut down restaurants and bars did not go will with most of the businesspersons involved. It was counter-productive, and confusing, most people ApEx talked to said. Only this week, popular restaurateur Tasneem Sahani took to Facebook to vent her frustration.
“Does anyone have a clue as to why the police came today at 8pm and shut everything down at Jhamsikhel?” she wrote, explaining that the police enforced a curfew, forcing everything including grocery shops in the area to shut down. Sahani knew that restaurants had an 8pm deadline for dining-in, but was under the impression that deliveries and takeaways were allowed till regular hours.
The confusion over deliveries and takeaways for restaurants is still rampant as Kathmandu braces for restrictions. If the restaurants are allowed to deliver and open for takeaways, will their staff be allowed out on the streets with their vehicles? They have not been told yet and will probably will find out only when their vehicles are confiscated.
‘Confusing’ is the state-of-affairs for most businesses in the present situation. Event manager- turned-restauranteur and club owner Ritesh Marwadi, who operates four different properties in Thamel and Lazimpat, is not sure if his businesses will ever recover from the losses. Marwadi co-owns two restaurants in Thamel and one in Lazimpat, with investments of over Rs 10 million each. His recently opened “Sugar Club” in Thamel was built on an investment of over Rs 40 million.
As for monthly expenses, Marwadi employees a total of 50 plus staff and including rent and other expenses, the expenditures come around Rs 2.2 to 2.3 million per month.
“We were told to shut down the club, which we were ok with to some extent. But forcing us to shut down our businesses by 8pm meant that we would not even make a fraction of our required daily sales,” Marwadi complained. Many popular restaurants in Kathmandu have food as their unique selling points. These restaurants can survive, if necessary, on takeaways and deliveries alone. Unfortunately for Marwadi, his restaurants thrive more on the ambience they offer than the food. His restaurants run at night only.
In an interview taken before the government imposed the restrictions in Nepal starting April 29, Marwadi gave the example of Irish Pub at Lazimpat, one of the restaurants he operates. The restaurant opens only at around 5pm. “Just the other day, we had one single guest who came in at 7pm and ordered beer and fries. He was just enjoying his order when the police came in at 7:30pm,” Marwadi narrated, “The customer panicked and left. The total sales that days was just over Rs 900.”
When the deadline for restaurants is 8pm, police start making their rounds almost an hour earlier, which startles the guests. Marwadi, along with many other businesses, request the government to let them operate till at least 10 pm. In return, they assure that they will maintain all safety protocols and operate in half capacity to facilitate physical distancing.
“Instead of enforcing restrictions on us and locking us down, the government should have locked the borders and stopped people coming from India,” Marwadi concluded, “With the country openly exposed at the borders, and by air travel, we will not achieve anything.” With his restaurants not opening for deliveries due to the restrictions, Marwadi is focusing on his commerce business for now.
Julia Shah, event promoter at Club Platinum is now unemployed because of the prohibitory orders. She feels that the government is repeating the same mistake it did last year. Instead of focusing on shutting down the borders and protecting the country, the government is doing the opposite.
“Restaurants and club businesses are not only for entertainment. They employee so many people and contribute to the economy,” Shah says, “These restrictions just forced us towards unemployment. We could have operated with social distancing and safety measures instead of just shutting down everything for months.”
Restaurants and bars not only employee staff in the kitchen and services department but also contribute to the monthly earnings of people of other professions as well. Musicians, DJs, dancers, drivers, security guards are just some of the professions that are tied up with restaurants and bars.
“Because of the nature of our businesses which involves high movement of people, we become an easy target for the government. The government had to do something as the infection rates got higher, they decided to impose restrictions on us to show they are concerned,” says Shree Gurung, event manager and restauranteur.
Gurung, who is also active in raising social awareness and continuously posts about Covid-related issues, is of the opinion that given to the situation, the government’s decision cannot be taken too harshly. With the second wave, Nepal might surpass the infection records of last year and is still unprepared for the pandemic.
“I personally feel the decision is alright, albeit not enough. We should take a break in this situation. To deal with the pandemic, businesses like mine take collateral damage,” Gurung says.
The collateral damage could mean a huge loss to businesses and cause massive unemployment. Employing around 300 staff on a regular basis, besides creating opportunities for musicians and performing artists, restauranteur Karish Pradhan sees the future bleak.
Pradhan’s five restaurants, all upmarket properties with individual investments of around Rs 20-30 million, might not see through the end of the pandemic, he says. His monthly overhead expense is around Rs 500,000-Rs 700,000 for each restaurant.
Initially, Pradhan was miffed at the government for only imposing the 8pm curfew on restaurants without any other measures to curb the infection spread. “Our main source of income is liquor sales. Sixty percent of the business takes place after 8pm. With the 8pm curfew, the guests do not bother to come any more. Also, takeaways and deliveries cannot generate the operational costs,” Pradhan had told ApEx before the prohibitory orders were announced.
Post prohibition, Pradhan has a changed stance. He welcomes the new regulatory orders and says it was important for the government to impose strict measures to curb the spread of the virus.
Pradhan informed that he will shut all his restaurants, since takeaways can’t cover even the operating costs, for the whole period of the ‘lockdown.’
“Money is not the only issue, we have to play our part as citizens too,” Pradhan said, also informing that his sixth and newest property in Lazimpat could not even host an opening night because of the restrictions.