Eating out
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 28, 2020 - 12:00am

A mother and her daughter are letting their hair grow long as they work from home during the pandemic.

Their objective: to donate at least 10 inches of hair to cancer assistance groups once a COVID vaccine becomes widely available and there’s no doubt that it’s safe to get a haircut in a salon.

Other people have turned into “plantitos” and “plantitas” – unleashing their inner gardener. Driving through private residential areas, I have seen an increasing number of households opening their driveways to sell obviously homegrown produce: squash, raw cassava, eggplants. Even small verandas have potted culinary herbs.

Others have made use of the pandemic to become big winners by losing – weight, that is. Chef Ernest Reynoso Gala of GalaStars Culinary school, for example, has lost an impressive 60 pounds so far during the pandemic. Ernest, the only son of my favorite cooking teacher, Sylvia Reynoso Gala, Vibered me the photos and video of himself looking buff and working out to prove it.

People are resigned to the idea that the coronavirus pestilence is going to be around longer than we can imagine. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that even under a “best-case scenario,” approval of any COVID vaccine for mass application in the Philippines would be no earlier than April 2021. What does Malacañang have to say about this? President Duterte keeps saying he expects a vaccine by November or December.

Even when a vaccine becomes available, I’m guessing there will be many people who won’t rush to be immunized, and will opt instead to wait for any harmful side effects that might be manifested by the first recipients.

This means continuing with the basic health protocols in the absence of a vaccine: wearing face masks and shields, manic handwashing, and the highly effective protocol but also the most devastating for the economy – physical distancing.

If the FDA best-case scenario proves accurate, it means that for about seven more months, distancing requirements will stay. And this means we cannot fully revive, among others, public transportation whether on land, air or at sea; dining establishments and many tourism-related enterprises; entertainment centers, and activities and events in the performing arts.

*      *      *

Over the weekend I was glad to see the popular Vikings buffet outlet at the Mall of Asia grounds coming back to life, with a line of people waiting to get in. Farther down the road, however, another buffet looked like it had been shuttered for good.

There were people on MOA’s bayfront promenade, strolling, jogging, taking selfies with the sea or the giant Ferris wheel as backdrop. Although it was far from the usual weekend crowd of the past, the renewed activity was heartening.

Two women at a hotdog stall told me that they reopened about three weeks ago, but only on weekends. The Ferris wheel, they said, was switched on occasionally, most likely as part of maintenance, to keep it in shape until passengers are allowed again.

The shopping malls are putting out their Christmas décor, to bring some cheer in this dreadful pandemic and boost foot traffic.

People are gingerly returning to restaurants. Several establishments have adopted a QR code system for contact tracing, eliminating the hassle of filling out a form with microscopic letters. There was a sizeable afternoon crowd at Giligan’s at SM by the Bay last Saturday. If there’s no consequent COVID spike, people may be back in the restaurants by the Christmas season.

Some entrepreneurs appear to be anticipating this, and can even afford to invest in new branches. A high-end bakery occupying prime store space in an upscale mall, for example, has been shuttered, but has been quickly replaced by a popular casual dining chain outlet.

Unlike fast-food chains, it seems many restaurants cannot survive on just take-out and delivery, or the low turnover for dine-in with physical distancing observed.

One of my favorite Chinese restaurants near my home, which used to be hugely popular, has shut down for good. A Filipino buffet restaurant at a nearby mall, meanwhile, has been closed throughout the quarantine, although a sign at the padlocked entrance says it will reopen when the situation allows it.

*      *      *

The owner of several restaurants, who has temporarily shuttered all but one of them, mainly to earn enough to retain their employees, gave me an idea of their predicament.

The owner said people are worried about dining in, and there is even a movement to persuade people to stay and eat at home. Under quarantine, many people have discovered the joy of cooking and baking.

“Small businesses emerged as well, which also became competition for restaurants. No rent, minimal workforce. Difficult to beat online food,” the owner, who asked not to be named, told me. “It’s a lot of challenge.”

Not all mall owners have agreed to relax lease or rent rules (restaurant owners hope for at least four months of rent vacation) or to collect just a percentage of profit.

*      *      *

The distressed owner’s hopes are pinned on the arrival of the saliva test, which has a higher accuracy than even the “gold standard” swab test but is much cheaper and produces results instantly.

Japan is already using spit tests starting at airports, the owner pointed out, citing chats with a friend who is in that country. So schools and restaurants in Japan are now open. Physical distancing and wearing of masks are still observed, but the health protocols are no longer as disruptive to Japanese businesses and the economy.

While waiting in a long line for a vaccine, we should move to get that saliva or spit test ASAP. The restaurant owner says it can be used even for their customers. The owners can’t shoulder the cost of swab tests (from P4,000 to P12,000) for their employees, but they can handle the spit test, priced at around P100.

They are also seeking clearer guidelines on liquor bans, because people want to drink outside their homes but are scared of arrest.

A subsidy on vitamin supplements particularly zinc to boost their workers’ immunity to viruses will also help, the restaurant owner said.

“They have to open the market. Tourism has to open really soon. They have to fix public transportation because staff have a hard time moving to and from work,” the owner told me. Otherwise, “our food industry will die – from owners, waiters, cooks.”

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