BEIRUT: Restaurants, hair salons and car showrooms in Lebanon cautiously reopened their doors Monday after the government issued new guidelines to ease coronavirus containment measures.
The government hopes that its gradual ratcheting down of Lebanon’s lockdown will throw a much-needed lifeline to the country’s crisis-laden economy, while keeping a second wave of coronavirus infections at bay.
Bustling Beirut traffic returned to the streets Monday as citizens emerged from their homes to visit their favorite restaurants for the first time since a “general mobilization” was declared March 15.
But businesses are now reopening their doors to a new reality in which they face a collapsing economy and lingering fears of a global pandemic that could strike again.
Despite consistent single-digit growth in the number of new infections reported in Lebanon each day, the highly contagious illness is still a real threat in the country – particularly as no vaccine has yet been developed or tested.
The Interior Ministry has nevertheless permitted restaurant laborers to work from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m, with restaurants implementing safety measures including a 30 percent occupancy cap. Many eateries have readjusted their seating arrangement to ensure customers are far apart. Staff are required to wear masks and gloves, and hand sanitizers are stationed at every entrance.
While there are no official numbers, Maya Noun, general secretary of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs and Patisseries, estimates that only 5 to 10 percent of food and beverage business will reopen.
Restaurants prior to the pandemic had already been struggling.
The syndicate estimates that 785 food and beverage businesses closed between Sept. 1, 2019, and Feb. 1, 2020, as a result of the economic crisis. Of those, 240 shut in January alone.
“We were already suffering before coronavirus and we’ve been out of business for two months. To open again, we have the stress of coronavirus safety measures and the stress of loan repayments to banks and municipality charges,” Noun told The Daily Star.
What is more, the national currency has lost nearly 60 percent of its value since Oct. 2019, putting pressure on businesses to raise their prices.
“The Lebanese pound exchange rate is LL4,000 [to the dollar] and we have to sell at LL1,500. Our purchasing power is nonexistent. There is no liquidity. How can anyone open if the government doesn’t provide support to motivate this sector,” the syndicate’s head Tony al-Rami said at an Economic and Social Council meeting on easing coronavirus containment measures April 29.
“We are preparing for our own burial as we throw this sector into the sea.”
Co-founder of Aaliya’s Books Niamh Flemming-Farrell, says the Gemmayze café and bookstore will be adjusting their plan one day at a time because of the uncertainty.
“We’ll see as time goes on what works really well and what doesn’t,” Flemming-Farrell told The Daily Star.
Regarding price increases she says, “We’ve been really determined since last September, when the currency started to unsettle, to maintain our prices ... but that’s just not viable at this point.”
Flemming-Farrel says the business is trying to hit a middle ground by changing up the menu. “In the kitchen we’re trying to use as much seasonal and local produce as we can, which can change day-to-day and week-to-week depending on what is available. But again, those goods are going up in price,” she says.
Charbel Bassil, manager of Le Chef, a Lebanese restaurant and 52-year-old family business says they have not yet increased their prices due to the uncertainty of the situation.
“There’s nothing stable right now. There are no guarantees,” Bassil says.
“We closed and [the Lebanese pound] was at LL1,500 [to the dollar]. We open and now it’s at LL4,000. How can you work with so much instability?” he says.
Used cars showrooms and dealerships also started operating once again Monday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. And walking along seaside promenades is now permitted from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Bars, nightclubs, coffee shops, sports clubs and games pitches, however, will remain closed until a later stage. The coming stages of lockdown easing are set for May 11, May 25 and finally June 8, so long as there is no new wave of infections. Prime Minister Hassan Diab warned Thursday that a second wave could see 56 percent more people infected than when the virus first entered the country.
As for people dying to get their hair cut professionally after botching the job at home, they may well have breathed a sigh of relief after barber shops opened Monday. The opening days are split between salons for men and women, with the first operating at the start of the week and the latter occupying the coveted end of week slots. Both types must operate by appointment only and open between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.
“It’s not good at all, I’m completely against it,” Furn al-Shubbak men’s barbershop owner Elias Yasbeck said of the new regime. “Men usually fix themselves up Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays only. What good are Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays to me?”
Mario Habib, another barbershop owner in Badaro, agreed and said that the seemingly arbitrary, gendered allocation of working days for salons was counterproductive.
“I don’t understand why they let us work those days only. I don’t think I have the time to squeeze six days of customers into three days. It’s more crowded than usual as a result.”
Habib said he had back-to-back bookings all through Monday and joked that he’d seen “a lot of bad haircuts” after many people tried to learn a new skill during lockdown.
The four barbershop owners The Daily Star spoke to said they would soon raise their prices because of the Lebanese pound’s collapse, but that it required a delicate balancing with people’s reduced purchasing power.
“I should raise my prices because I can’t cover my costs at the old price, Rabih Hattoum told the Daily Star at his Furn al-Shubbak salon.
“A packet of razor blades used to be LL10,000. Now it’s LL40,000 – and that’s one of the cheapest things. But if I raise my prices, a customer who came once a month would start coming once every month and half or two,” Hattoum said.
It was the same for nearby barber Nabil Jabbo. “We must raise prices but people can’t pay. Someone whose salary is LL1 million is now worth $250 – nothing.”
With the political and financial elite bickering over who will pay the price for 30 years of corruption, mismanagement and risky lending to the government, a solution to the current crisis seems far off.
“A lot of places will close if the situation remains like this, and people will leave when they open the airport,” Hattoum said. “This is the first time in my life that I’ve thought about leaving Lebanon, even though I turned down many opportunities before. Even the most needy country is better than Lebanon now.”