In a narrow alley in Omraniya district in the governorate of Giza is a small oriental café of four tables. At 1pm, there is only one patron while in the pre-coronavirus days the café would have been packed.
The scene is the same in other cafés after they were allowed to re-open after more than three months of closure due to the pandemic. Earlier this week restaurants and coffee shops were given the green light to resume business but at only 25 per cent capacity while applying strict hygiene standards. During the past three months of the lockdown they were only allowed to offer takeaway services.
“During the curfew my eight employees stayed home. Now they are taking shifts with only one worker at a time attending,” says the owner of the oriental coffee shop who preferred to remain anonymous. “I can’t fire an employee who has been working in my shop for 10 or 15 years,” he says, adding that he would rather give an employee half his salary than lay him off.
According to the new standards for reopening restaurants and cafés, tables must be two metres apart. If customers are lining up for takeaway service, there should be one metre between them. In addition, customers should be using single-use dining utensils like paper cups and plastic spoons. Upon entering, customers are to use a hand sanitiser. And employees are required to wear face masks. Only 50 percent of staff can work during a shift. Cafés and restaurants will now be allowed to open until 10pm but will not serve shishas to reduce the risk of virus transmission.
According to Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli, the decision to gradually reopen after a lockdown that began in March was intended to help some 3.5 million Egyptians working in service industries such as tourism and restaurants.
He said the decisions will be periodically reviewed and “strict measures” would be imposed if citizens failed to adhere to the rules.
“The problem is that I don’t have enough room in my shop. Implementing the 25 per cent decision means that I can have only one customer in my shop at a time,” said the coffee shop owner.
“In the past people would come to smoke shisha, play dominos or meet friends, but now they’re afraid. The income we get is not enough to cover our water and electricity bills or even the salaries of our employees. The little money I get I give to my employees; I do not keep any of it for myself.”
The café owner adds that now he has new financial burdens such as buying paper cups.
The sole client in the café told Al-Ahram Weekly that he works in a clothes factory and was happy to be back in the coffee shop. “I come to the coffee shop to help the people working in it make a living. We should all help each other in times of crisis,” he said.
“I think that since the government has started to open businesses, it should open them completely or not open them at all because we are not benefiting like this,” argued the café owner.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly