Many major chains choose to stay shut, demand compensation

Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda traders protest unfair closure, as other stores reopen

1 arrested as stall-holders, backed by mayor, demonstrate over what they see as unfair treatment; other small businesses nationwide worry that ongoing restrictions deter customers

Police arrest a man during a protest by stall-owners at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem against the ongoing closure of their businesses, April 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police arrest a man during a protest by stall-owners at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem against the ongoing closure of their businesses, April 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Merchants clashed with police at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda fruit and vegetable market on Sunday during a demonstration called to protest the continued closure of the landmark open air market even as most stores nationwide have been allowed to reopen during the COVID-19 crisis.

Videos posted online showed a scrum of small businessmen scuffling with uniformed officers at the market’s Agrippas Street entrance. One of the protesters was arrested and later released and Tali Friedman, who represents Mahane Yehuda’s shop owners, was summoned for questioning by the police.

In an interview with Army Radio, Friedman said it was illogical for Mahane Yehuda and Israel’s other outdoor markets to be kept closed while all other stores outside of shopping malls were now permitted to open, declaring that “this cannot go on.” She said that the shop owners had tried to maintain social distancing during their protest, but that it hadn’t always been possible.

“We’ve been kept closed for a month,” she said, warning that the small businesses were dying and calling the situation totally unfair.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion declared his support for the shop owners, tweeting that he hoped the government would “soon approve the opening of the market, which is a source of income for hundreds of Jerusalemite families.”

“I promise to you, market vendors and Jerusalem residents, that I won’t let up until the market is reopened,” he wrote.

Despite the prohibition on the opening of markets, numerous shops in Mahane Yehuda have been open in recent weeks.

Stall-owners at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market protest the ongoing closure of their businesses, amid the Coronavirus crisis. April 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, anger boiled over in Tel Aviv on Sunday as self-employed demonstrators marched down Rothschild Boulevard to protest their treatment at the hands of the country’s banks, which have raised rates on new loans and mortgages at a time when credit is in huge demand.

Many small business owners in Israel are worried about their economic futures despite measures introduced by the government last week allowing most stores to reopen on Sunday.

According to a government decision last Friday, all stores that are not in shopping malls will be allowed to operate if they adhere to guidelines on hygiene, protective gear and social distancing. This includes many retail outlets, hairdressers and beauty salons.

In addition, restaurants and food shops are allowed to sell products for takeaway, not just home deliveries, if a physical barrier is placed between the cashier and the customers.

Most of Israel’s major chains, however, chose not to reopen on Sunday, instead demanding government compensation for lost business in recent weeks.

The problems faced by small eateries was recently given a face by falafel store owner Yuval Carmi, whose tearful account of being unable to provide for his family, as he couldn’t sell food for takeaway, moved the nation last week.

Despite the new, more relaxed rules, small businesspeople expressed concerns about their future economic viability, claiming that they were being allowed to resume operations only under onerously restrictive conditions that will deter most customers solely so that the state can justify denying them compensation for their losses.

Many people are still nervous about going out and the restriction barring the general public from traveling more than 100 meters from their homes (except for work, shopping or other essential purposes) or more than 500 meters for exercising or prayers will remain in effect until after Independence Day, which ends Wednesday evening.

Charlie Suissa, who was forced to shut down his Givatayim hair salon in mid-March, told the Walla news site that he had received “zero” financial help from authorities and that he had received no guidance on how to operate going forward.

He said that he had received “no clear instructions” from the Health Ministry and that he was trying to glean information from news reports, stating that he had bought hand sanitizer, gloves and face protection but that he was still unsure if he had to take customers’ temperatures before allowing them into his shop.

“It feels like we’re being allowed to open the business so we don’t seek compensation from the state,” he said.

Eleanor Schreiber, the owner of a clothing shop in Raanana, told Walla that   between travel restrictions and limits to how many customers can enter the shop at the same time, she was unsure if reopening was worth the effort.

“People are scared to come,” she said, adding that a NIS 6,000 (approximately $1,700) grant she had received from the government was “a drop in the ocean” compared to her recent losses.

This appeared to be a common refrain.

“Most of my clients are older and I hope people will come, [but] most are sitting at home and afraid to come,” Alona Martiniuk, a Jerusalem beauty salon owner, told Channel 12.

Eli Saroussi, the owner of a motorcycle dealership in Jerusalem, told Channel 12 that he had lost around 80 percent of his monthly income and was unsure if he would be able to successfully revive his business. He said that he had not received a response to his request for a government loan.

On Friday, the government approved a NIS 8 billion ($2.27 billion) plan to increase support for self-employed Israelis and small business owners who have been hit hard by the coronavirus, following accusations that Israel wasn’t helping businesses that were forced to shut down.

A man walks past a closed branch of the Castro fashion chain in downtown Jerusalem on April 26, 2020. Most stores were allowed to reopen, but many major chains stayed shut, with their owners demanding government compensation for lost business amid the COVID-19 crisis (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, hundreds of Israel’s largest chains remain closed on Sunday, despite approval to reopen, in protest against the government and as they demand compensation for the recent closures and ongoing restrictions.

Some 200 chains, including leading stores of clothing, optics, home decor, camping and sports gear, as well as cafes and restaurants, will not open their doors even as many pandemic restrictions are lifted at midnight Saturday. A full (Hebrew) list is available here.

Large business owners are demanding government compensation for operation losses, in line with those announced for small businesses.

The Association of Fashion and Commerce Chains said in a statement that opening stores in a limited capacity now without a government-provided security net would only deepen their losses.

The head of the National Labor Federation in Israel, Yoav Simchi, criticized large business owners, saying that keeping their employees on unpaid leave meant they were using them as “hostages” in their fight against the government.

Channel 12 also reported that, meanwhile, many representatives of business owners throughout the country were criticizing reopening the economy without providing solutions to parents whose children remain at home.

Preschools and elementary schools are expected to partially reopen in early May.

The easing of commerce restrictions came after public confusion and anger over the decision-making process on which businesses can and cannot currently open.

Anger rose particularly on Wednesday as IKEA reopened its furniture stores in accordance with government rules, drawing in large crowds, while many other shops remained shuttered. Outgoing Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has strenuously denied allegations that this decision was linked to millions of shekels in donations to the minister’s Gur Hasidic sect.

Unemployment in Israel was at 27.05 percent, or 1,125,814 people, as of Thursday.

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