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Restaurants released from lockdown, yet only half expected to reopen

Industry organization says many eateries will only restart operations in 2 weeks, or even after Passover, due to difficulty finding employees; 4,000 said to have closed for good

A restaurant in Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
A restaurant in Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Despite a government decision allowing restaurants to reopen starting Sunday, at least half will initially remain closed as they struggle to recover from coronavirus restrictions and lockdown measures that have ravaged the industry over the past year.

According to the Israeli Restaurants and Bars Association, many establishments will only open their doors over the coming two weeks, with some waiting until after the week-long Passover holiday, which starts on March 28, the Walla news site reported.

Restaurant and café owners have reportedly struggled to recruit staff, with many of their workers preferring to stay furloughed. Under government measures to help workers during the economic crisis caused by the outbreak, workers who have been furloughed will continue to receive welfare checks until the end of June.

According to the report, there are some 50,000 furloughed workers from the restaurant and café industry who are delaying returning to work.

Two weeks ago the National Employment Agency told employers they could report any workers who turn down offers to go back to jobs they held before being furloughed, but so far the move has not produced any change on the ground, according to the report.

Idan Weitzman, the owner of the Eazy Cafe in Tel Aviv, told Walla that before the pandemic began he employed 25 people, but on Sunday he would reopen with just five.

“I very much hope that in the future I will manage to return to full operation and that we will not close down soon,” he said. “The process of opening is super-complicated and super-expensive.”

Weitzman said that even before opening his doors, he needed to employ workers to prepare the premises. “There is also a lot of investment in equipment that has not been operated for a long time, there are parts that have rusted, the refrigerators are not working. So there is a fear of starting a business, a fear of being shut down again,” he said.

He said that on top of the assistance he received from the state over the past year, he had to take out loans for hundreds of thousands of shekels to survive. “I need to return them at some point, I don’t know how,” Weitzman said.

Channel 12 reported on Friday that out of over 14,000 restaurants in Israel before the pandemic, around 4,000 have closed for good.

Eateries are now allowed to host up to 100 people with Green Passes — indicating vaccination or recovery from the virus — indoors at up to 75 percent capacity, and can seat up to 100 people outside, even without passes. Tables must be two meters apart.

Previously, restaurants and cafes had only been able to offer takeout and delivery services.

Owners were also frustrated by the timing of the last-minute approval, which came on Saturday, after a Friday cabinet meeting to vote on the measure was pushed off to the next day.

On Saturday, before approval to reopen had been granted, restaurant and café owners published an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticizing the government over its handling of the situation. In particular, they protested the Health Ministry’s efforts to increase the required distance between tables to 2.5 meters. The distance was eventually set at two meters.

Israel in February began easing restrictions following a third lockdown, and has since gradually reopened shopping malls, gyms, swimming pools, hotels and some cultural facilities.

Besides restaurants, the current stage of reopening extends to all school grades, event venues, attractions and hotels, with some of the activities available only to those with Green Passes.

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