South Africa

SA reacts to opening of restaurants as virus cases rise

JOHANNESBURG - "I am breathing again," sighs Kanto Razafimandimby, on her first night out since South Africa reopened its restaurants and casinos as part of a gradual loosening of lockdown, even as the number of coronavirus continues to rise.

"It really feels like my freedom is back," said the 27-year-old dining with three friends at Verdicchio Restaurant and Wine Cellar in northern Johannesburg suburb of Fourways.

Saturday marked the 100th day of lockdown for South Africa, which has imposed some of the strictest stay-at-home measures in the world since March 27 in a bid to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Nevertheless, the number of infections is rising daily by the thousands and the country now has the highest number of cases on the continent -- 177,124, including 2,952 deaths.

Restaurants and casinos have been allowed to reopen since Monday as part of a phased and gradual relaxation of the restrictions.

But business remains slow five days on, picking up to just about 25 percent of pre-lockdown levels for some restaurants at Johannesburg's premier entertainment and gaming centre, Montecasino.

With infections rising, many potential guests remain cautious, and an ongoing ban on serving alcohol with meals also means some diners are staying away, at least for now.

In a far corner of the same 120-seater restaurant, where fewer than 10 tables are occupied, IT expert Kennedy Machiwana is celebrating his 35th birthday alone, because "we have to observe social distancing".

"It feels a little weird" to have meal without alcohol, he complains.

"I come here specifically because they have some of the best red wine. It doesn't feel the same... it feels like the meal is not complete," he says as he pours himself a glass of water.

The restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol are part of the government's lockdown rules.

But alcohol accounts for a huge chunk of restaurants' revenues and the industry is lobbying to put booze back on the menu.

At a nearby Thava Indian restaurant, where the last customers have just left grumbling because they cannot have alcohol with their meal, manager Vivin Varghese says the hospitality industry is "bleeding" from the virus fallout.

"People are still scared to come out," and those who do "are still mourning that there is no alcohol," says Varghese, 35.

More than 30 restaurants encircle the slot machines and roulette tables crowded onto Montecasino's casino floor.

Only a few dozen gamblers are slowly trickling in.

Fitness instructor, Valentino Domingo, 49, hits the slot machine, saying he has lost some money already, but is happy to be back at his favourite Wheel of Fortune machine.

"I felt like I came out of prison. It felt like I haven't been out for years, you know, just for three months, it's been really been something," Domingo says.

There at least two empty machines between each gambler and cleaners wait in the background to sanitise each machine after use.

Guests can only enter after they have had their temperature taken, are wearing a face mask and sanitise their hands regularly.

Montecasino's chief operating officer Mike Page had initially been worried that the complex would be overwhelmed by a massive surge in the number of customers.

"Thankfully, it has been a slow and steady uptick of business," he says.

"On the casino floor itself, there are wet wipes, sanitisers... we are covering points of touch with plastic to allow easy wiping off."

Restaurants have similarly upped their hygiene game: tables are disinfected before and after every client, while staff constantly sanitise themselves.

"We are trying (our) best to make sure that (customers) feel safe when they come and dine out with us," says Verdicchio Restaurant's manager Deran Els.

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