Coming out of lockdown

Soha Hesham and Ameera Fouad, Tuesday 14 Jul 2020

Hotels, cafés, and restaurants are reopening across Egypt,Soha Hesham reports from Cairo and Ameera Fouad from Alexandria


For three months or more, people around the world have been largely locked up in their homes as part of measures adopted to halt the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Lives have been restricted in a way rarely experienced before, and people have had to give up almost all their daily routines, with plans being cancelled like travelling, holding a wedding, or even heading to a favourite café.

Egypt’s two main cities of Cairo and Alexandria have seen streets relatively empty, and the beaches of Alexandria are vacant in an unprecedented way at this time of the year. But some activities are being replaced, with people walking and running in the streets for exercise, children playing on bicycles, pedestrians walking their dogs, and the unmissable number of coloured kites fluttering in the skies of Cairo and Alexandria.

In Egypt, there was no absolute lockdown like in other countries due to fears of economic collapse, but the closing of hotels, cafés, and restaurants hit the hospitality sector hard, whether for owners or workers. Over the last three months, Egypt has lost LE125 billion due to the consequences of Covid-19, according to Minister of Finance Mohamed Maait.

Mosques and churches have been allowed to resume religious prayers except for the Friday prayer and the Sunday mass for Christians to avoid overcrowding.

“We didn’t work for more than two months until we started to open the café again for takeouts,” one waiter from a café chain in Cairo said. “We were paid half salaries as well.” Since waiters mainly depend on tips for the larger share of their income and even sometimes work in more than one place to make ends meet, they have suffered financially during the pandemic.

Hotels, cafés, and restaurants have reopened following new safety procedures of 25 per cent capacity, but some people are still fearful of going out and are choosing places with open areas while keeping safe distances. Waiters are obliged to wear face masks during working shifts.

One new mother, Sally Farag, was strolling with her one-year-old daughter in the Cairo district of Zamalek, trying to pick an open area to have coffee. Unfortunately, a lot of places are not allowed to have tables outside, however. “I will not sit in an indoor café. I really wanted to go out but in an outdoor place for good air circulation and where my daughter can walk around. Children have become bored at staying at home for so long,” she said.

A middle-aged man who preferred to remain anonymous said that “I used to go out all the time, but now after spending a lot of time at home I have learned to cook for myself as I live alone. I still prefer to go out to limited places that I can be comfortable in because of their hygiene and safety measures.”

A retired man in his late 60s, Hisham Abdel-Azim, is used to playing tennis every day at a sporting club in the Cairo district of Heliopolis. “I wish the sporting clubs would resume their activities, as for older men this is their only activity, and people can easily get depressed at giving up all their activities. Tennis is one of the sports that is safe to practise: it’s in an open space, and everyone is far away from his opponent.”

Sporting clubs have just started to resume their activities, but measures are being taken like taking the temperature of every member before entering the club and some clubs still closing indoor areas.

A waiter at the Swiss Club in Cairo said that “we were really bored spending all this time without work, but we’re lucky that reopening the Swiss Club is much safer than a lot of other places. Our venue is in a garden, so it’s much easier to manage safety measures, and all our clientele are cooperative, which makes it easy for us to carry on with our work. We are really happy to reopen our doors for our regular guests.”  

ALEXANDRIA: “It is not easy to fly a kite, as it involves many challenges like observing the wind speed and how to handle the string tension, when to lose the tail of the kite, and so on,” commented Mahmoud Ahmed, a teenager in Alexandria.

“If it had not been for Covid-19 and the ban on beaches, I would not have seen so many kids flying kites in Alexandria this year. These circumstances have made us realise and enjoy the forgotten simple joys of life.”

The beaches in Alexandria are empty, and no one can enter any public beach at the risk of a fine. Ali Al-Manesterli, chair of the Alexandria Tourism Chamber, said that all the city’s public beaches and open gardens were closed except for those annexed to hotels and private ones.

photo: Reuters

“Several hotels are now working at 50 per cent of their capacity, after this rose from 25 per cent. They are allowed to operate at 50 per cent of their full capacity if they have adhered to the hygiene safety rules approved by the government and the World Health Organisation,” he said.

“Some 200 hotels have obtained this permit nationwide, including 15 in Alexandria,” he added.

A committee founded by the Tourism Chamber monitors hotels and resorts for cleanliness and sanitation standards. It goes above and beyond the highest standards of quality control to ensure the health and safety of every guest and that every hotel should provide a seamless experience and peace of mind for visitors throughout their stay. Protective equipment including masks and gloves are used by staff, and there are also temperature controls.

Al-Manesterli added that “employees in hotels will work continuously for 60 days without taking days off. Once the 60 days are over, they will be subjected to tests to ensure they are not infected with Covid-19 before they take their holidays.”

“From the moment a guest enters a hotel, everything is sterilised, including luggage. Temperatures are taken, and hand sanitiser is available everywhere. On private beaches there is social distancing,” he said. “No room in any hotel can be occupied except 48 hours after the last guest’s departure.”

Tourism is a pivotal sector in Alexandria, and every summer the city receives millions of visitors. “We are also concerned with small enterprises, like small souvenir shops, tourist guides, horse carriages, and many more that make their living out of this important sector,” Al-Manesterli said.

“This is why domestic tourism is pivotal to keeping the whole sector alive.”

(photo: Reuters)

Tourism and Antiquities Minister Khaled El-Enany recently inspected many touristic attractions in Alexandria, the North Coast, and Marsa Matrouh. In Alexandria, he visited Qaitbey Citadel, the Montazah Palace, the Graeco-Roman Museum, the Jewellery Museum, and the Catacombs of Kom Al-Shokafa.

“We are on track to reopen all these attractions to encourage local tourism and visitors. In the first phase, we will allow only 100 people per hour to enter, for example, a large site like the Citadel. We will open the big sites first, and then in a second phase we shall open the others,” the minister commented.

“To practise social distancing, only a limited number of people will be able to enter a room at any given site,” he added.

Covid-19 has affected many small, medium-sized, and large enterprises in the city, but solutions have been found to handle the situation. Hemeida Said, an Alexandria resident, opened his own restaurant in March and has thus far managed to cope with the pandemic.  

“I launched my restaurant called Samax after much thought and hesitation as I believed that the pandemic would not end all of a sudden and it had been a plan for the whole of the preceding year. I decided to launch no matter what,” Said told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Many thoughts crossed Said’s mind on how he could start and how people could order food they had not tasted before. However, as a media specialist himself, he decided to market his new restaurant online. He used photographs, alluring graphic design, and social-media tools to promote his new fish restaurant.

“Having done this, I got my first delivery orders, and this was only the start. Of course, relatives and friends helped me at first, and they were surprised to see me as the chef of my sea food and fish restaurant. I also relied on reviews, recommendations, and free publicity.

“I am now trying to create deals with companies to deliver food packages and offers. In this economic crisis, everyone wants to get offers and reduced prices,” Said added.

As Egypt began to ease its lockdown at the end of June, many restaurants became available to serve their customers again at 25 per cent of full capacity. For many of them, opening again was the last chance to spare them from bankruptcy.

“I am facing an accumulated deficit of around LE66,000, which is quite a large sum,” said Hani Mahmoud, a café owner in Alexandria.

“People do not realise that in winter, restaurants and cafés do not flourish, as we always wait for spring and summer to grow our businesses. But this year, we have been in a frightful state since March and even before that,” Mahmoud added.

The losses do not lie just in not running the café or paying the rent. They also lie in paying wages, supplies, which can get outdated, and many other factors. “I bought large quantities of supplies last February because I knew that by Ramadan and the Eid prices would soar. But after Covid-19 and the lockdown, nobody now wants these things,” Mahmoud said.

Mahmoud’s café is currently running at only 10 per cent of capacity. Though the Al-Wardian district where it is located is a populous area of Alexandria, Mahmoud says that people are still afraid of going to cafés and socialising.

“Only young people come from time to time, but elderly people rarely come and sit in a café. It is not like it was before,” he added.

The Alexandria governorate is taking major steps to curb the spread of Covid-19 even after the rest of the country has loosened some restrictions.

“We know Alexandrians love the Corniche, which is why the governorate from day one decided to have police patrol the busiest areas to keep people social distancing and to raise awareness of the virus,” said Mohamed Fouad, an advisor at the Alexandrian governorate.

“No one is allowed to sit there, and gatherings of over five people are dispersed right away. During the Eid, we even closed the Corniche completely for both traffic and pedestrians so that we could prevent any gatherings,” he commented.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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