The First Station complex in Jerusalem would normally be buzzing in late May, its trendy cafes and restaurants full of Jerusalemites and tourists.
But on Wednesday, the day that eateries were officially allowed to reopen after the coronavirus lockdown, attendance, in the morning at least, was sparse.
Most people sitting at the kosher Fresh Kitchen restaurant chose to sit outside.
“We love coming out for breakfast,” said Kelli Creel, who has been living in the West Bank with her husband Jameson Creel for more than 20 years.
“This is a return to normalcy,” said Jameson, who directs the American School in Beit Jalla, near Bethlehem, for Arab Christians. “This is the first time we’ve sat in a restaurant since March 3 or 4.”
“The lockdown was irritating,” said Kelly, quipping, “I’m supposed to say we got to spend good family time together, right?”
Added Jameson, “We’ve got five kids, aged 7 to 16. It was nice being at home together for a week and a half.”
Wednesday marked the first day since mid-March that restaurants and cafes were allowed to open after the coronavirus lockdown, and while many eagerly headed out to eat, virus fears remained present in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, leaving some locations half empty.
For Kelly and Jameson, spring periods, and particularly Easter, usually see eight to 10 US tour groups visiting the school and donating money. “This year, it’s all been canceled,” Jameson said.
On benches around the back of the restaurant sat four self-described “alte kakers” (Yiddish for old fogeys) — retired Jerusalemites originally from Canada who like to cycle together in the Jerusalem hills and beyond. Stopping for a coffee on their way home, the four were decked out in full cycling gear, their faces covered with masks. They were maintaining a distance between each other of two meters (6.5 feet). “Most of us are of the vulnerable age,” said Sid Tenenbaum. “Richard is the baby. He’s only 60.”
“Had we not seen them wearing masks while they prepare in the kitchen, we wouldn’t have drank the coffee here,” Tenenbaum added.
Also drinking coffee together, but in far lower spirits, were Sarit and her friend, who asked not to give her name. Both work with the elderly. “It wasn’t so bad not to be able to come out for coffee,” said Sarit. “It’s more important to me that the skate park opens for my son, but that hasn’t happened yet.”
In Tel Aviv, where cafe life is part of the city’s DNA, the trade was brisker. Some wore masks around their chins, others not at all.
In upscale Kikar Medina, elderly people were happily sipping their drinks both at the Roladin branch and at Cafe Alma.
Elsewhere, Cafe Bucke, a trendy vegetarian eatery popular with young adults, was full, with tables spaced 1.5 meters (five feet) apart in line with Health Ministry instructions, disposable menus and waiting staff wearing masks in a variety of ways.
Gil Pomeranz, a 28-year-old member of Israel’s national handball team, was waiting with his brother to eat lunch on his first outing to a cafe since the lockdown.
“We’re being careful [about coronavirus] and following all the Health Ministry directives,” said Pomeranz, who lives in the coastal city of Herzliya. “When I train with the team, we also follow the Sports Ministry’s guidelines.”
Noam Rizi, a veteran restaurateur in Jerusalem, who today runs event catering as well as the upscale Adom meat restaurant in the First Station complex with his two partners, was getting ready to open, having locked Adom’s doors on March 15 and sent the vast majority of its 75-strong staff on furlough.
The restaurant has seating for 165 but with Health Ministry instructions to keep tables apart, it was set to be full with just 100 diners.
“The two and a half months that we closed very hard,” he said. “At Adom, we pay around NIS 500,000 ($143,000) per month to our suppliers. When we closed, we owed about NIS 1 million. But the income stopped. It was very difficult to explain to the suppliers.
“It was hard for us, too. We’ve had Adom for nearly 20 years — we celebrated 19 years in April — and have gone through two intifadas (Palestinian uprisings), the Gaza War in 2014 and terror attacks in Jerusalem, and we never closed completely. We stayed open during snowstorms even if we made a loss.
“We’re in a world crisis and nobody is responsible. But I do blame the economic leadership of this country, from the finance minister down,” he continued.
“They left us to deal with the problems on our own for two and a half months. It’s not as if we closed because we wanted to. They should have provided solutions when we needed them, not just news headlines.
“The government should have started giving support on April 1. [Then finance minister Moshe] Kahlon announced a budget of NIS 80 billion ($23 billion). But they’re still not moving. Money is like oxygen for a business and it should be given when it’s needed. We haven’t seen a shekel yet.”
Adom launched a crowdfunding campaign urging people to pay for meals in the future. Aiming at NIS 100,000 ($28,500), they raised NIS 165,000 ($47,200).
“The government didn’t understand the consequences of the lockdown,” Rizi said. “If you don’t pay a supplier, it can destroy him. I know lots of restaurants that won’t open. Grants will help them to reduce their losses, but if it had come a month ago, they might have been in a different place.”
He added, “I really pity restaurants that opened two years ago. I don’t know how they’ll survive.”