MELVILLE, South Africa – There’s an eerie silence shrouding Melville’s 7th Street. Ordinarily, restaurants and bars would be packed to capacity during lunchtime. The lockdown, though, has put paid to that.
These days, the popular hangout is a ghost street. There are parking spaces aplenty and restaurant tables stand empty. The bars are shut because of the Covid-19 prohibition; several wellknown restaurants such as Pablo EggsGo-Bar, and Ba-Pita have given up the unequal struggle and won’t reopen.
Jo Anna Melt Bar, a go-to destination for a delicious quick lunch or a home-brewed beer, is one of those who hope to open once the pandemic peaks and people are allowed to drink liquor again.
It’s dark inside. The only thing that can be seen are the handwritten signs stuck to the windows.
“Stay Home. Stay Safe. Social distancing is our only weapon to win this war,” reads one. “JoAnna will be closed until this is all over. Love you all. See you on the other side.”
The lockdown is a further blow to an area that took a hit, literally, in the early hours of January 1, when a BMW SUV cruised past Poppy’s restaurant and opened fire on the patrons seeing in the New Year. Two people died. Six others were injured. No one has been arrested.
The restaurants that have tried to pivot within the lockdown regulations, say they are battling to stay afloat. Popular burger joint Dukes Burgers is open for only deliveries these days, as it has battled to attract sit-down customers.
Owner Ari Shapiro said his business was suffering greatly. “It’s been pretty much life changing for us,” said Shapiro. “Currently we’re receiving just enough business to keep the shop running. We are on skeleton staff. “Most of the staff are still at home. We try to support them as much as we can, but we aren’t able to. Their lives are completely f***ed up.”
“We are trying to hold on. None of our big bills can be paid, and rental had to be negotiated.”
Shapiro owns two other businesses on the street – one, a bar, had to be temporarily closed while his other business had to be shut permanently.
“All three of my businesses were hospitality related and they have all suffered greatly. “We are trying to hold on, and take one day at a time.”
The irony, he said, was that before the lockdown and the shooting, Melville was on an upward curve. “It was awesome. Last year, 7th Street was really going to places it had never been before. We had new tenants coming in, pulling new crowds and there were good vibes all the time.
“Then on New Year’s Day at 1am everything changed, and that happened just around the corner from my restaurant. It was dead for a while after that and then finally when things started looking up again at the end of February and things were looking nice and positive, we got the Chinese present. That was the end of it.”
Shapiro has had to make several changes to survive lockdown. “We cut down our menu considerably. We have removed at least 50% of what we normally have on our menu. “It’s just to keep the business on a low flame, simmering, so we can manage to sustain it and see the light of day when it’s over and done and everything opens up.”
Shapiro tested positive for Covid19 three weeks ago. “It wasn’t that bad, I’m feeling much better. I closed the shop for three weeks and then sanitised the whole business. I had to phone a long list of people to tell them they need to isolate because now they’ve been with someone who had it.”
Shapiro said he hoped things change soon. For the moment, though, he was just taking it day by day.
Over at 27 Boxes, popular café Reserved is empty. Not a single customer has walked into the establishment the entire day. “Business has been terrible,” says owner Daniel Ribeiro. “It’s pretty much been touch and go for us. We don’t know what the future holds for us and we don’t know if we’ll be able to keep our doors open. We apply for these grants that government offers but unfortunately, we don’t get them.”
Ribeiro’s café has been around for the past two years. “There’s a possibility that it does face closure. I’m trying to do everything that I possibly can to keep my doors open.
“My biggest worry is my staff members. I was very fortunate to be able to pay my staff members through lockdown while we were closed, but it’s getting to a point where I’m unable to any longer.”
Ribeiro said it has been hard to see his restaurant virtually empty for most of the week. “People are afraid to come and sit down, and that is understandable. But it’s heartbreaking because you put your passion and your hard work into a restaurant and then this is the outcome.
“We’re very hopeful that things will turn around though. Our weekends are good, however during the week it’s dead.
“Curfews also put restrictions on us as restaurant owners. My dinner trade is gone completely.”
One of 7th Street’s oldest establishments, Cafe De La Creme, has been brought to its knees. “Basically, we can’t pay our expenses because everyone is scared and no one is coming out,” said the owner, who did not want to be named.
“We were always busy prior to the lockdown. We’ve been here for over 30 years and business has been great. This area is reliant on tourists. There are a lot of guest houses so I can say a huge percentage of the business we had was foreigners coming here.”
Cafe De La Creme has also had to cut staff. “Our staff are waiting at home, and if we are busy enough later on, we will be able to hire them back. So far, we’ve had a deal with the landlord to help us through this period. Once that deal is over, we will evaluate whether we can still be here.”
Indian restaurant Satkar was forced to close its seating area due to a lack of customers.
“Nobody wants to come in and sit down, so we had no option but to focus on takeaways and deliveries only,” said the owner who also did not want to be named.
“We are selling only 20% of what we used to sell. There is literally no business.” They have been forced to cut staff too; all the waiters and some of the kitchen staff too, and the owner doesn’t expect business to improve any time before next April.
“This year has been a complete write-off and most of next year too. All we can do is try our best to stay afloat and pray that things get better soon. There is nothing else we can do.”