Restaurants and public life in Lebanon suffer amid new coronavirus measures

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As the coronavirus case count in Lebanon climbed to 93 and state authorities registered three deaths, Lebanese authorities closed restaurants, entertainment centers and other public spaces last week.

State authorities had publicly admitted they had been unable to contain the spread of the virus domestically, and along with the country’s syndicate of restaurants announced Wednesday that establishments would close in the country currently in the throngs of economic crisis.

“The stores are all closed, there aren’t people in the street, there is no work,” Mehdi Wehbe, an employee at a clothing store in west Beirut that had remained open, told Al Arabiya English. “They are trying to suspend employees because the companies aren’t paying.”

Already hard-hit by multiple economic and fiscal crises over the last six months, businesses in Lebanon have seen their fortunes decline further as a result of the new measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, the medical term for the new coronavirus. In Beirut’s popular shopping districts and nightlife hubs, cafes, bars, and stores have been forced to close, and those that have remained open have suffered losses as street life has nearly ground to a halt.

Some corporate employees have been unable to go to work, and shop owners stated that many in the industry won’t be able to make ends meet in the case of prolonged national paralysis.

“We in Lebanon in 2006 had a war, and we didn’t see this type of crisis,” Mohammad al-Sibaai, a perfume vendor in Beirut’s Hamra area, told Al Arabiya English. “It’s not a joke — there is death.”

In Hamra, Gemmayzeh, Mar Mikhael, and other previously-bustling popular Beirut neighborhoods, stores, and businesses with seating or public gathering spaces were shuttered, and street activity was markedly lower than usual. The popular Barbar Restaurant, which has two locations in Beirut that are usually open for 24 hours a day and had operated throughout the Lebanese Civil War, had also been forced to close, reportedly with pressure from tourism police.

Some small shops and eateries continued to operate, but with precautionary measures in place.

“We don't [come into] contact with people, just by delivery,” Ahmad Itani, a shop owner in the Verdun area, told Al Arabiya English. “It's better and more comfortable for them.”

Like many others, al-Sibaai lamented that the outbreak of COVID-19 added another layer of adversity in a country that had already been dealing with an economic downturn.

Paul Eid, the manager of Mexican restaurant Taco de Madre in Mar Mikhael, told Al Arabiya English that the virus outbreak has caused him to lose money.

“This affects us a lot because we lose a lot of customers, even when it comes to delivery,” Eid said. “They are afraid to order. We are losing a lot of income.”

Others lamented similar problems.

Tony Saab, a shop owner in Mar Mikhael, told Al Arabiya English that while the owners of establishments in previously popular areas understand the necessity of the new social distancing measures, they cannot hold out for long.

“Because of corona, [business owners in the area] say it’s no problem if this lasts to the end of the month,” Saab said. “But they have a problem if it goes longer, because there is rent to pay.”

Another casualty of the new circumstances in the country has been social life. Al-Sibaai, the perfume vendor, said he has started avoiding large gatherings, and Renata Harb, an employee at a telecommunications aggregator who has started working from home because of virus fears, said she doesn’t socialize much with people anymore.

“I'm not worried for myself because you're always worried for the older people, and my grandma lives with us,” Harb told Al Arabiya English. “I'm visiting my friends right now but that's it. We're not going out at all.”

Despite the difficulties facing them however, some businesses are taking steps to limit the spread of the virus as much as possible. Disinfection procedures have taken place at currently-closed establishments. Some supermarkets, like Olive and Cheese Fakhani in Verdun, have asked employees to wear masks and gloves while working and have placed sanitizers throughout the market.

“We do all we can to keep our stocks fully loaded to be able to serve the Lebanese people,” Khaled Itani, the branch manager of the supermarket, told Al Arabiya English. “We’re being the impact we want to see in the society that we live in basically.”

While many of the stores that remain open provide the bare essentials, some businesses, like the Plan Bey gallery in Mar Mikhael, have held out amid the widespread closures.

“Since all the museums are closed, we are trying to keep this place [open] for the tourists to show them another perspective of Beirut,” gallery manager Ahmad Haidar, who said he cleans the shop every thirty minutes, told Al Arabiya English. “This place is not crowded by people so for now we are safe.”

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