Nowhere to dine in

June 14, 2020

As restaurant owners await approval to open their dine-in services, the government seems reluctant. It cites difficulties in implementation of the SOPs as a major hindrance

The first to take the hit are the employees — either they are laid off or major cuts are applied to their salaries because the restaurants are now dealing in takeaway services only.

It was during Ramazan that the government of the Punjab announced that it would allow restaurants to open their dine-in services after Eid, once the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for patrons had been worked out. While the public parks have been reopened, there’s been no breakthrough regarding the eateries which are still not allowed to accommodate customers on their premises. The customers can only order food at home or avail the takeaway services.

Recently, a delegation of local restaurant owners met Senior Minister Abdul Aleem Khan and sought his support in this matter. They asked for favour and promised to follow the prescribed SOPs once these are notified. Reportedly, the provincial government sent a proposal to the federal government, but the latter has yet to give the go-ahead. The government’s main concern is that the SOPs might not be complied with (at the restaurants) because of the nature of the activity involved.

However, this does not mean that the chapter is closed; negotiations and deliberations are still underway and the pros and cons of such a decision are being discussed at length.

The restaurant industry has pleaded that if the situation remains the same, it will result in huge layoffs, unbearable losses on investments, inability to pay overheads including rents and utility bills; and eventual closures of outlets.

At most places, the first to take the hit are the employees — either they are laid off or major cuts are applied to their salaries because the restaurants are now dealing in takeaway services only.

Muhammad Jameel, a waiter at a BBQ restaurant in Garhi Shahu, watches out for any approaching vehicle and rushes towards them the minute they seem to pull close to the outlet. For most of the day, he is on his feet, on a rocky footpath outside of the shop, beckoning potential customers. He says that their takeaway service is open but it comprises a small component of their sales which have always relied on dine-in customers.

“The clientele for takeaway services has also dwindled,” Jameel tells TNS. “Perhaps, because the people are scared they might contract Coronavirus, they are less trusting of the food that is prepared in our kitchens.”

Talking about salary cuts, Jameel says that sometimes he is paid on the basis of the takeaway orders served. Occasionally he works extra hours without any benefits. “That is why some staffers have either quit or been laid off. The result is that I have to do their share of work too.”

Jameel’s is just one example; there are thousands of cases in which job losses and pay cuts have distressed the restaurant employees. The owners say that when there are no sales and only expenditures they cannot retain people for long.

So, the question arises if it is possible to open restaurants the way some other countries have done? What are the concerns of the government and what are the demands and commitments that the industry is making?

Hafiz Qaiser Abbas, spokesperson for the Punjab Food Authority (PFA), says the authority has not yet received any intimation or instructions in this regard. “We will implement the SOPs once these are finalised by the authorities.”

The suggested SOPs include ensuring that the occupancy at dine-ins does not exceed 50 percent, which means that a table shall be left vacant next to an occupied one. Besides, physical distancing must be practiced within the premises, and facemasks used.

He also speaks of a mandatory approval from the federal government — “The provincial government can only make recommendations.”

Suggestions about the proposed SOPs have been under discussion for some time. They have now been sent to the federal government by the Health Department, he adds.

The suggested SOPs include ensuring that the occupancy at dine-ins does not exceed 50 percent, which means that a table shall be left vacant next to each occupied one. Besides, physical distancing must be practiced on the premises, and facemasks used. The restaurants should make use of disposable cutlery, and frequently spray disinfectants in dining areas as well as the kitchen without contaminating the food items. Lastly, only independent air-conditioning units will be allowed because a central air-conditioning system having ducts is banned everywhere.

The federal government is said to have received the suggestions but put the restaurants business on the negative list for the time being.

Restaurant owners say they can ensure compliance with the SOPs and keep their places safe and secure. They argue that dozens of sectors like poultry, livestock, agriculture, packaging, beverages and spices are dependent on the business of restaurants and would suffer if dine-ins are not allowed to reopen. (Though the number might be a lot higher, a PFA record shows a total of 30,000 registered hotels and restaurants in the province.)

Sadaqat Rahim, the Bundu Khan Restaurants & Foods director, says that they are faced with many challenges, one of them being the people’s hesitance to dine in. Assuming that the restaurants are allowed to open, he says, it will not be easy to regain the customer flow anytime soon.

Rahim urges on the government to “also give us incentives, because we are facing revenue losses and the condition of 50 percent occupancy will make a further dent in our business.”

For example, he says, if the government cannot waive the utility bills it can at least defer these or allow the industry to pay in instalments and adjust the bills for summer months in winters. “Regardless of the customer flow, the ovens, lights, air-conditioners, water supply etc have remained functional and cost heavily to the owners,” he adds.

Rahim insists that the restaurant owners “are ready to follow the dine-in SOPs and stringent safety procedures for our home-delivery and takeaway services. Even the body temperatures of the persons who have cooked and packed food are checked and shared with the customers.

The customers can only order food at home, or avail the takeaway services. — Photos by Rahat Dar

“Many big restaurants are already following the best practices and have installed sanitisation machines; they disinfect their places regularly, and enforce proper hygiene protocols for their staff. Any additional SOPs too shall be followed.”

Mohsin Bhatti, president of the Consumer Solidarity System (CSS), a non-profit organisation working for consumer rights, and an expert in food quality assessment, believes that customers’ trust is the key. “The restaurants should install CCTV cameras in their kitchens and dining halls, and set up control rooms where everything can be monitored. This way, it will be easier for supervisors to make sure the SOPs are being followed and none of the employees is showing slackness. The customers too should be allowed live virtual tour of the kitchen.”

Bhatti suggests discontinuing the buffet services when the restaurants are opened, so that the people do not gather around the same set of dishes. “Only a la carte orders should be accommodated because the service is safer.”

The writer is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Nowhere to dine in