SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - July 15, 2020 - 12:00am

For the first time since the general community quarantine or GCQ, I went to a large shopping mall at around lunchtime last Monday.

Considering where we came from before GCQ, I guess the business situation at the mall can be seen as a glass half-full.

Many more shops have reopened, including the one that I’ve been needing to visit since the enhanced community quarantine, but which was still shuttered when I dropped by shortly after Metro Manila shifted to a modified ECQ.

More restaurants and fast-food outlets have also reopened, with dine-in services back. And there were actually people dining in.

The outlet of McDonald’s, which has implemented stringent health protocols to reassure patrons about safety, had the most number of dine-in customers.

It was also heartening to see patrons in the hair salons, where employees were clad in full battle gear against COVID-19.

Not all the salons, however, have reopened. The same goes for skin clinics; those that have reopened accept clients only by appointment. All the nail, facial and massage spas remained closed; it was depressing to see the padlocks on the doors of even the biggest chains and to peer into darkened rooms that used to teem with clients.

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Last Saturday, I made good on my threat to myself and cut my own hair for the first time, following DIY tutorials on the internet. I can endure the results. But just to revive the hair salon business, I would encourage people to go to the professionals. You can bring some of your own equipment if you like, such as the hair cutting gown and dry brush where you put powder to brush away the trimmed hair. I might finally return to the pros myself… after another four months.

By that time, the feverish race for a cure or vaccine for coronavirus disease 2019 might already have a clear winner, and COVID phobia would have much dissipated.

As of now, the dismal number of dine-in patrons in the fast-food outlets and restaurants indicates continuing fear of infection. This, of course, should be good news for the health experts, but bad for business. A popular buffet restaurant at the mall that I visited, for example, remained padlocked, not operating even for dine-in.

But at least more people are now dining in. And restaurant operators are surely happy to know that the Department of Trade and Industry has approved an increase in the dine-in capacity from the current 50 percent to 75 effective July 21.

As for the department stores, the situation is still worse than when the pandemic was just starting, when there was a drastic drop in foot traffic at the malls.

Under normal circumstances, shopaholics should be rejoicing over the many items now on sale in the department stores. But it’s a new normal, and there are so few takers. Purchasing power has shrunk, and people worry about potentially deadly infection. When I dropped by, there was no customer in the clothing section, despite signage reassuring the public that all the apparel on sale are disinfected with ultraviolet scanners.

The ukay-ukay apparel shops, which have also reopened, seem to be faring better.

Foot traffic remains unchanged, and even periodically rises, only at the supermarkets. Hoarding has abated though, even for items such as alcohol and toilet paper.

Last week there was a run on classic Lysol disinfectant spray in the white canister (the scented versions were still available), after it was approved as a laboratory-tested surface killer of the COVID virus by the US Environmental Protection Agency (more than 99.9 percent effective within two minutes of use, according to a peer-reviewed study commissioned by the manufacturer). The Lysol Max Cover Mist was out of stock even on e-commerce sites.

Considering the steep price of Lysol products (about P570 online for the medium-sized 425 g Max), you can see the lengths people go to for COVID protection.

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COVID phobia zapped the shopping and consumption bugs, and this will likely persist until a cure or vaccine becomes commercially available.

Until then, we just have to stick with the health protocols.

At the malls, many shops have plastic or plexiglass dividers, to reassure customers and comply with safety rules set by the government.

These days you have to keep your eyes down while malling, because most of the visual cues for distancing are on the floor. There is one-way direction for foot traffic so people don’t bump into each other along the aisles and hallways. Distancing cues are painted on the steps of escalators.

Having suffered the disastrous impact of community quarantines on livelihoods, people are almost as terrified of further lockdowns as catching the COVID-causing SARS-CoV-2.

The scare intensifies amid reports that hospitals are fast running out of beds and critical care facilities dedicated to COVID patients.

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Some people, however, seem to be blissfully unaware of how bad the situation is, and think the easing of quarantines means they can set aside health protocols such as distancing and wearing of masks.

On my way home late at night I pass by several such spots in Metro Manila, with people sitting or standing closely together in front of alleys and roadside eateries. Where are the barangay patrols?

Today, President Duterte is expected to announce the latest quarantine classifications. Restituto Padilla, spokesperson for the National Task Force for COVID-19, told “The Chiefs” last Monday night on One News / TV 5 that Metro Manila will likely remain under GCQ and Cebu City under the strictest ECQ.

A hybrid quarantine is expected, with certain areas placed under hard lockdown – as Mayor Toby Tiangco has done in the entire city of Navotas.

The hybrid rewards those who comply with health protocols and penalizes those who don’t.

Before ignoring the health protocols as the economy is reopened, we should heed the latest warning from the World Health Organization: “If basics are not followed, the only way this pandemic is going to go – it is going to get worse and worse and worse.”

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