Restaurants and coffee shops in Egypt finally threw open their doors on Saturday after three months of closure, as authorities lifted a variety of business-bruising coronavirus restrictions in a bid to rescue the battered economy.
In Cairo, waiters in masks served coffees at cafés and customers could once again enjoy their food at restaurants, albeit well-spaced from other clients under the 25 percent occupancy limit that the authorities now require. Many restaurants measured clients’ temperatures and guided them to sanitise their hands before they entered.
At Eatery, a smart restaurant in New Cairo, founder and co-owner Omar Fathy said it was a relief to reopen after the dramatic financial suffering caused by the restrictions.
“The problem has been the negative cash flow that came with the sudden closure,” he said, referring to losses of EGP 2 million ($123,700) suffered by his two branches in the two months until the end of May.
“I expect it will take [business] until the end of this year or the first quarter of 2021 to recover, if we don’t close again.”
Fathy, like many restaurateurs, is implementing the new hygiene rules fully in order to entice customers back.
This includes seating 50 clients as opposed to the previous 250, with tables spread metres apart. The normally packed restaurant saw only 10 percent of its pre-coronavirus occupancy on Saturday, according to the owner.
He is also turning to other safe eating practices: there are no paper menus for now. Instead, a QR code is plastered on the tables, which customers scan to bring up a menu on their mobile phones.
Like many operators, Eatery wants its landlord to drop rent charges for the closure period, but the management of the mall where it is located has only offered to cover half the period.
A sticker showing a barcode that customers scan on their phones to view the restaurant menu, to avoid using paper menus that are touched by many customers, in Cairo, Egypt, June 27, 2020 (Photo: Ayat Al-Tawy)
A waiter disinfects a table after patrons left in a restaurant in Cairo, Egypt, June 27, 2020 (Photo: Ayat Al-Tawy)
Egypt announced last week it would lift many restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus, reopening cafés, cinemas, clubs, and gyms after more than three months of closure, despite a spike in new infections in recent weeks.
The country has recorded 63,923 confirmed coronavirus cases, including 2,708 deaths, since the outbreak began in February. But the actual numbers, like elsewhere in the world, are thought to be much higher than the reported figure, as many cases are believed to go unreported.
On Saturday, however, the first wave of customers seemed happy to return to their old haunts.
“It feels so good because I really needed to go out. We had been locked at home with no place to go since they shut,” Noha, 26, said as she waited in line to get a latte at a Starbucks in southern Cairo.
The pandemic has brought the country’s vital tourism industry to a near standstill, slowed remittances from Egyptians working overseas and prompted major job cuts.
The Egyptian government projects the economic growth for the fiscal year that begins on July 1 to fall to 3.5 percent if the coronavirus crisis continues until December, down from a previous estimate of 6.4 percent.
But the relaxation in the restrictions, which the government says is meant to keep the economy running, has still drawn criticism.
“People are careless. When you open, you are actually giving everyone the impression that it is not a serious matter, so people will become even more careless,” said Salma Shalaby, 29.
The cabinet said the decisions to roll back the restrictions could be revoked if people do not adhere to them correctly.
A worker checks the temperature of a customer as he enters a Starbucks shop as the country eases coronavoirus restrictions, in Cairo, Egypt, June 27, 2020 (Photo: Ayat Al-Tawy)
Elsewhere in Cairo, a bustling mega-city of around 25 million people, some are wary about the post-lockdown phase.
“Work won’t go back to normal. People are still scared of the disease. We expected there would be a high footfall on our first day back, but it was the opposite,” said Gafaar, a waiter at a traditional café in downtown Cairo.
He expects customer numbers to drop by more than half, despite the reopening, as shisha, formerly an inextricable part of the country’s café scene, has been banned under the new health regulations.
Mosques also reopened for worshippers for the first time in months, though they will remain closed for the weekly Friday prayer service, which draws larger crowds.
“I teared up while praying,” said Ahmed Sobhy, after he finished the Isha prayers at a mosque in Cairo’s Al-Manial district. “It’s totally different spiritually when you pray at home to when you pray at the mosque.”
People sit in a cafe in the Egyptian capital Cairo on June 27, 2020, after authorities relaxed the lockdown measures in place to curb the spread of coronavirus (Photo: Ali Nada)
A waiters carries an order at a cafe in the Egyptian capital Cairo on June 27, 2020, after authorities relaxed the lockdown measures in place to curb the spread of coronavirus (Photo: AFP)