Confusion Reigns as Stores Reopen in Israel

Some owners have chosen to keep shops shut because of restrictions or because shoppers are staying home

Adi Dovrat-Meseritz
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Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz

Contradictory directives have left some retailers confused three days after the government eased its coronavirus lockdown measures, according to store owners. Store owners also say inspectors have acted in violation of the rules.

Moreover, few customers have shown up, causing many retailers to ask themselves whether it was worthwhile to open for business in the first place.

Bibi's got the perfect exit strategy - just not for the coronavirusCredit: Haaretz

“Since last Saturday night, we’ve been deluged with queries from business owners who don’t know whether they’re allowed to open or not. The media, the Health Ministry and the police are all giving out contradictory information, so there’s a lot of confusion and chaos,” said attorney Keren Chen-Sofer, legal advisor to the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce.

She cited the example of the government’s purple badge standard, which allows businesses to bring back to work at least 30 percent of their staff if they commit to upholding a certain level of coronavirus safety. Yet, she said, other rules that set limits on business activities to deter the coronavirus from spreading don’t mesh with that standard. “Business owners don’t know which rules apply to them,” said Chen-Sofer.

M., who owns a housewares store in central Israel, complained that retailers were told Sunday to take the temperature of everyone coming into their stores and to record their names.

Then, word began circulating that maybe taking temperatures was unnecessary, but the Health Ministry refused to say either way. It finally notified stores that they didn’t need to check temperatures on Monday.

“Even so, an inspector came to the store in the afternoon and said I wasn’t following the directives,” said M. “That set off a flurry of phone calls with lawyers and the like. A store owner these days needs to retain a legal advisor to tell him what he can and cannot do.”

As for the government, “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing,” he added.

Under the guideline issued Sunday, stores selling computers, phones, housewares, carpets, electronics, sports equipment and music as well as dry cleaners, tailors and shoemakers, can open as long as they are not in enclosed malls. Apparel, footwear and toy stores were left out, causing resentment.

Still, even those retailers who have been allowed to reopen say they are losing money, and some have chosen to stay closed.

“We conducted a pilot today and opened 22 of our stores located on streets and strip malls,” said Gideon Moliav, an entrepreneur whose holdings include the Mega Sport chain. “Some of our street stores haven't been reopened because we want to see how it goes and make sure that we don’t start running up even bigger losses.”

Moliav’s strategy is to resume business gradually. The first thing Mega Sport is doing is bringing back workers who were on unpaid leave, with only two staff members working any given shift and a limited number of reopened stores.

“Even then, we’re going to lose money under the current system because there are going to be fewer customers and we still need to cover salary costs, management overhead and municipal taxes,” he explained. “We need to reopen because we sell things people need for home sports activities and because it’s better for everyone, even if we bring back just 50 of the thousands we employ from unpaid leave.”

Tzomet Sfarim, by contrast, has chosen to remain closed for now even though the bookstore chain is allowed to open its non-mall outlets.

“There are things we need to clarify,” said Avi Shomer, one of the chain’s partners. “It doesn’t make economic sense for us to only open up the street locations. If we can open the 40-plus stores we have at strip malls, we probably would open them, but only if we believe the government is moving toward further easing of the lockdown and is not liable to impose more restrictions later.”

“There’s no reason to reopen stores only to have another lockdown of several days due to Independence Day and Memorial Day [next week],” he added.

Other retailers say it makes sense to resume business, even at a loss. Home Center, a hardware retailer, opened 30 stores on Sunday and plans to open 10 more, said Eyal Fishman, its CEO and owner.

“For the time being, we’re opening fewer hours in order to keep people seperated froom one another and because some employees haven’t yet been on unpaid leave for 30 days,” he added. Employees on unpaid leave for fewer than 30 days don’t qualify for unemployment benefits.

“The number of customers in the stores is a third of the regular level and sales are down by half,” Fishman said. “I’ve heard of chains that decided not to reopen, but I believe it’s better to do business and start bringing in money and pay suppliers instead of saying that it just doesn’t pay to open. We’re all in a hole, but I prefer to minimize the damage. After all, we don’t know for certain what the economic situation will be down the line.”

Strip mall operator Big Shopping Centers decided to reopen for business on Monday. The Health Ministry had initially barred retailers at such malls from reopening, but Big said the emergency orders say otherwise.

CEO Hay Galis said traffic at the malls was lower than in pre-coronavirus times because people are shopping strictly for necessities and quickly returning home. “So, we told our tenants that we would only collect [rent] based on a percentage of sales and not at a fixed rate,” said Galis.

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