When Thamel’s LOD (Lord of the Drinks)—probably the biggest nightclub in the country at the moment—opened last week after almost nine months, massive criticism came its way. Images and videos of youngsters dancing in the club circulated in social media and people could not stop talking about how unsafe these clubs are. Is it wise to open them, they asked, at a time the threat of Covid-19 is still so imminent?
Despite the all-round criticism, the club decided to open through the week, also featuring live music sessions even on weekends. Following suit, a number of other clubs in Kathmandu, mainly in Thamel, announced the resumption of their services, adding fuel to the debate on the right time to open Kathmandu’s nightlife and entertainment outlets.
While the majority of people and even medical professionals are against opening bars, pubs and nightclubs in the capital city, the arguments in favor have not been given much space in public forums. People are concerned that late-night clubs could be hotspots for virus transmission as they are unventilated and crowded closed spaces.
The stakeholders of night entertainment businesses say they are as safe as any other business that has opened. In fact, they claim, their outlets follow more stringent safety protocols than most other private and public enterprises.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, night businesses in Nepal, especially Kathmandu, were the first to take a hit. The police were already enforcing an early shutdown weeks before Nepal went into its first lockdown in mid-March. Even now, when most other businesses and industries are allowed to operate freely, the government’s iron rules on night entertainment have irked the business community and related stakeholders alike. The once throbbing Thamel still wears a deserted look even on weekends, with no tourists and few locals visiting.
The police have been imposing a curfew on businesses around Thamel—Kathmandu’s nightlife hub—with no clear explanation on where the instructions are coming from. We are told that earlier, the curfew was 8 pm for restaurants, bars, pubs or clubs operating in the Thamel area. Following protests from local businesses, the deadline was pushed back to 10 pm, which is still not viable for their businesses, say entrepreneurs.
Why only Thamel?
Under the umbrella of the Night Entertainment Business Association of Nepal (NEBAN), entrepreneurs and stakeholders of Thamel have been staging protests against the restrictive measures. Without any relief package from the government, Thamel’s businesses, which otherwise pay high taxes, are on the verge of bankruptcy. Many of them have closed forever and the remaining ones are on the verge of collapse if the strict covid-19 measures continue. “Does corona spread only in Thamel?” “And does it spread only at night?” These were some of the questions the protestors were asking.
“Why is Thamel still under such a strict rule when everything else in the country is open?” questions Biru Man Prajapati, a DJ and entertainment business entrepreneur. “This is an entertainment zone. With all that they have been through in recent times, people need some quality down-time to refresh their minds,” the Thamel resident says.
“Wedding receptions are taking place unhindered and yet people criticize when bars and pubs open. How is that fair?” asks Nikesh Manandhar, drummer of the band AudioSquad which performs in venues around Thamel. Before the lockdown, Manandhar’s band was getting just about enough weekly shows to sustain its five-member team. Now, again, as LOD opened, so did the opportunity for them to earn decently. AudioSquad has resumed its position as a house band at LOD, playing on weekdays, albeit for around 30 percent less payment compared to pre-covid days.
“We have no complaints as long as we get to play live music,” Manandhar says. “The management has promised to start paying us more as soon as business gets back to normal.” A number of other bands have started performing in Thamel, even though they are often forced to end their sets by 9 pm or even earlier.
“Our protest is not only on behalf of business owners but also countless other stakeholders in Thamel’s night entertainment industry,” says Dinesh Shrestha, vice-president of NEBAN and member of Thamel Tourism Board. Also the owner of the Thamel-based Ozzie Lounge, Shrestha complains of the government apathy to the high-tax paying Thamel businesses as well as of people’s prejudiced perception of what happens in Thamel.
Jobs at stake
“If you look at areas around Thamel, like Chhetrapati, Ason, New Road, you’ll see that they are crowded all through the day. But when we open for a few hours at night, we are treated like we’re the only super-spreaders,” Shrestha complains, adding that the government has done a huge injustice to the night entertainment industry that creates thousands of jobs.
It’s a vicious cycle, adds Shrestha, where daily wage workers, salaried employees, independent contractors, musicians, singers, dancers, landlords and even banks are suffering. Night life brings people to Thamel, sustaining many other non-entertainment related businesses as well.
Also, Shrestha claims that all the businesses that have resumed or planned to resume are fully aware of the Covid precautions. He again gives the example of LOD which checks the temperature of each guest before letting them in through a sanitization booth. It is operating at half of its capacity and the staff have to mandatorily wear masks at all times.
“Profit is not our motive at the moment. We just want to minimize our losses and sustain our businesses till everything goes back to normal,” Shrestha says. “Some business owners had taken out millions in loans, anticipating a successful tourism year 2020. Now they can’t even pay their interest. And then there’s rent and staff salary that needs to be paid whether we operate or not.”
In these conditions, operating in half capacity would be just about enough to retain the staff and pay rents, say stakeholders.
Ashok Thapa, owner of the famous Reggae Bar in Thamel that has been in operation since 2005, seconds Shrestha. Also an executive member of Thamel Tourism Development Council, Thapa informs that it has only been a month since Reggae restarted with live music but the bar is yet to even make break-even revenues. “Despite financial losses, closing down forever is not an option,” Thapa says. “We are maintaining safety protocols and running half capacity just to stay alive as a business.”
Life and death
But Dr. Anup Bastola, chief consultant for Tropical Medicine at the Ministry of Health and Population, advises caution. The crowds in open places like New Road and Ason are not the same as crowds in crowded nightclubs and pubs where people come into contact with one another for longer periods, he says. Bastola also fears that once people get a little drunk, safety measures might take a backseat.
“There are reports of clubs becoming super-spreaders in Europe too. So I think people should be aware that once they enter covered and crowded places, their vulnerability to contracting covid-19 will greatly increase,” Bastola says. Aware of the economic impact of the closure of night entertainment businesses, he emphasizes the need to maintain strict health protocols even if the clubs are to open and requests both patrons and management to consider their own safety.
Khyam Raj Tiwari, ward president of Kathmandu Metropolitan City-26 that includes most of Thamel, informs that his office has already sent letters to the Chief District Office, Tourism Ministry and Home Ministry requesting full resumption of night entertainment businesses in Thamel. “[If we open up] some people may get the coronavirus, and a few could even die. As it is, thousands of people are suffering from financial, social and mental problems,” Tiwari says. “We fear that if the strict restrictions continue, many more could die from these restrictions than from the dreaded virus.”