South Africa

Lockdown night out in Joburg — without wine

Lockdown night out in Joburg — without wine

“I am breathing again,” sighs Kanto Razafimandimby on her first night out since SA reopened restaurants and casinos as part of a gradual loosening of lockdown, even as the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise.

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

Saturday marked the 100th day of lockdown for SA.

The lockdown 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 by the thousands daily, and the country now has the highest number of cases on the continent.

Restaurants and casinos were allowed to reopen on June 29 as part of a phased and gradual relaxation of the restrictions.

However, business remained slow five days in, picking up to about 25% 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 for now.

'It feels weird'

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”.

He complains that “it feels a little weird” to have a meal without alcohol.

“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.

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

Liquor accounts for a huge chunk of restaurant revenues, and the industry is lobbying to put booze back on the menu.

At the 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 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.

'Out of prison'

Only a few dozen gamblers are slowly trickling in.

Fitness instructor Valentino Domingo, 49, hits the slot machines, saying he has already lost some money, 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. For three months it has  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 COO, Mike Page, had initially been worried the complex would be overwhelmed by massive numbers of customers.

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

“On the casino floor itself, there are wet wipes and sanitisers. We are covering points of touch with plastic to allow easy wiping.”

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 customers feel safe when they come and dine out with us,” says Verdicchio Restaurant manager Deran Els.