As one of the top global hotspots for the coronavirus, South Africa has taken a hit with an economy in tatters. With its Covid caseload dropping gradually, the country will return to some form of normalcy from Tuesday in an attempt to salvage businesses and maintain livelihoods.
“The move to Level 2 means we can remove nearly all of the restrictions on the resumption of economic activity across most industries,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced to the nation in a televized address at the weekend.
From tomorrow, August 18, the country will shift gear to the new reality.
It’s a move the restaurant industry welcomes with open arms – and open tables.
The advancement to Level 2 means that the controversial suspension of alcohol sales has been lifted. Although the curfew remains more or less the same, from 10PM to 4AM, lifting the alcohol ban does add some relief to licensed establishments, such as restaurants and pubs, which can now at least attempt to start salvaging what is left of their businesses.
“There is a bit of light at the end of a very dark and long tunnel with regards to the fact that we can now sell alcohol. The curfew is still not late enough but this is still a win,” says founder and CEO of the Rockets Group, Sean Barber, to FORBES AFRICA.
The Rockets Group, with 12 establishments across South Africa, was one of the restaurants most affected. In mid-July, it was forced to temporarily close its biggest branch in one of Gauteng’s most opulent residential suburbs, Bryanston. This was because it generated most of its revenue through the sale of alcohol. But Level 2 means it can now reopen.
“It’s not going to be easy and it is going to cause some damage but definitely not as much damage as before,” Barber says.
Other restaurants, however, are not as optimistic. The Irish Pub franchise, The Brazen Head, endured the burden of Covid-19 from the beginning as it remained closed since the announcement of the first lockdown in March. It only predicts a reopening in September.
“Just because they have lifted the alcohol ban does not mean it is going to work out for us,” says The Brazen Head’s owner Ralph Rojahn. “I can already tell you that they are contradicting themselves by saying we can serve alcohol but the curfew starts at 10PM. This means that actually I can only serve alcohol until about 8PM to 9PM so that my staff can be home by 10PM.”
Restaurant Association of South Africa (RASA) CEO Wendy Alberts says the hard lockdown has put a strain on several restaurants in South Africa that have had to permanently close their doors.
RASA ran a survey in which 23,000 restaurants across South Africa participated. Of that, 30% stated they have closed their doors while 50% said they do not know if they will be able to reopen due to massive overheads and debt.
“I am very heartsore for those restaurants that have lost their businesses and staff that have lost their jobs. So although this appears to be a win, there actually is no win in this space because people have lost, and people have been hurt,” Alberts says.
When Ramaphosa announced on June 17 that restaurants would be allowed to reopen under an “advanced” Level 3 lockdown, allowing for businesses to operate normally but with strict safety measurements in place, this was the hope the industry needed to save jobs and the industry as a whole.
However, plans changed quickly when the president announced on July 12 that alcohol sales would be immediately banned and that the curfew was back, leaving many restaurateurs in dire straits again.
“I know that the pandemic has shattered our industry and put all of us in deep economic trouble but the one thing I know about each and every person in the restaurant industry in South Africa is that you are incredible, you are amazing, and I have such respect for your fight and willpower to keep pushing through,” Alberts says.
The Beer Association of South Africa (BASA) also welcomed the re-opening of the sale of alcohol under Alert Level 2 of the lockdown, especially for restaurants, bars, and taverns.
According to BASA’s data, from March 27 to May 31, 8,000 licensed taverns and 30% of craft breweries have been left bankrupt. A further 15% craft breweries and thousands more taverns have had to shut down permanently due to the second ban in July.
“Therefore critical that we do not ever have a repeat of the situation we had on 12 July 2020, where an immediate ban on the legal trade in alcohol was announced – without the industry being given any prior warning or opportunity to engage,” Patricia Pillay, BASA CEO, says.
The advancement to Level 2 means South Africans can now also buy cigarettes after a five-month ban following the announcement of the National State of Disaster on March 23.
“We can now smoke cigarettes but we must not share them,” said Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at a media briefing on August 17.
Tobacco company Philip Morris South Africa has welcomed the government’s decision to lift the ban on tobacco products and e-cigarettes, as it will be reopening its 24 IQOS retail stores.
The following facilities may also now reopen under Level 2 but are limited to only 50 people at a time: gyms, health facilities, casinos, cinemas and theaters.
Social gatherings such as weddings and funerals are now allowed but again limited to 50 people.
Interprovincial travel is now permitted, but international travel is still prohibited. Local tourism is open for business.
But there are still questions on the safety of advancing to Level 2. The concerns stem from the fact that South Africa has the fifth-highest number of confirmed cases on the global list of countries with the most infections.
Moreover, the State of Disaster was set to lapse on June 15, and Dlamini-Zuma extended it to September 15, to allow the government to continue to respond to “the threat of the virus to public health, the healthcare system, and the economy”.
“When we further open the economy it doesn’t mean that the risks are lower, it just means that we are trying to balance people’s livelihoods by opening the economy,” said Dlamini-Zuma.
Ramaphosa sounded hopeful, though, as he stated in his address that the country is making progress in its fight to mitigate the spread of the virus.
“Over the last three weeks, the number of new confirmed cases has dropped from a peak of over 12,000 a day to an average over the past week of around 5,000 a day. The recovery rate from coronavirus has risen from 48% at the time of my last address and now stands at 80%,” he said.
“We have proven our resilience as a nation over the past five months. The task before us now is to apply the same energies with which we have battled this pandemic to the economic recovery effort.”