Israel's COVID Lockdown Forbids Takeout Meals. So Israelis Got Creative

Deliveries to benches, orders by phone – or by shouts. The current rules have proved to be the mother of invention for desperate eateries trying to survive

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"Short distance" delivery of takeout food from a Tel Aviv eatery during Israel's second coronavirus lockdown, October 2020
A "short-distance" delivery of takeout food, in Tel Aviv. For some businesses finding loopholes is an existential need; there are others that can afford to obey the letter of the law.Credit: Moti Milrod

Outdated restrictions like “no entry without a mask” and “wait for the maître d’ to take your temperature” are still posted on the windows of restaurants and food stands around the country, like death notices for a time that is no longer.

Under Israel's current lockdown, no entry is permitted at all, even with a mask and a normal body temperature.

Even the old social-distancing rule during the pandemic about staying two meters apart has been replaced with seven meters. That’s how far away from an eatery customers in downtown Tel Aviv have to stand to get a “short-distance delivery,” during this lockdown.

Since this distance can be bridged by yelling, the customer waits for the proprietor to come out to take his order. “Hot sauce?” the proprietor yells. “No,” comes the answer from the customer. “What did you say?” the other man asks, to be sure. “No!” the customer shouts back.

A few minutes later, a pita and money change hands. This isn’t actually a “delivery,” since there’s no middleman. But it’s also not exactly takeout in the usual sense, since the customer remains in the street.

A Tel Aviv burger restaurant with a message saying "short-distance" delivery, during Israel's second pandemic lockdown, October 2020.
A message at a Tel Aviv burger place, saying “Short-distance delivery*.” The asterisk refers to details about just how short the distance is – a nearby bench.Credit: Moti Milrod

So what is it? It’s human nature to find ways around rules that are totally illogical, even discriminatory. Right across the street, a bakery is operating legally with the clientele in a crowded line. A croissant with Brie can be purchased there, face to face. But a transaction involving a falafel requires standing at a distance of seven meters.

Food stands are allowed to make deliveries, and some do. But some are inaccessible to the motorized scooters of the delivery people. Moreover, most of their sales typically come from passersby who suddenly develop a craving upon seeing the stand. And even though there are far fewer passersby these days, there are still some.

So the Jewish brain came up with a way for Tel Avivians to get a falafel even if they don’t have a home nearby to which it can be delivered. Moreover, it is perhaps a necessary trick to stave off or delay the failure of even more small businesses, while showcasing the absurdity of some of the coronavirus rules in the process.

The window of a hamburger joint on Dizengoff Street bears a message saying “Short-distance delivery*.” The asterisk refers customers to details about just how short the distance is – in this case, a nearby bench.

“Customers aren’t allowed to come in to give us their orders,” one of the managers there explained. “So we use our phone number. The customer calls us, waits for us outside, and the ordering is done by phone. We could speak directly but we only talk on the phone, so there won’t be any problems.

“It's total bullshit, a way to cover your ass, and I don’t like it, but there’s no other option. I rely on deliveries because that’s the situation now, but I prefer for people to come and buy. The delivery companies cut into my profits,” he added. “Takeout is the most convenient and profitable, but it doesn’t suit everyone. Many people want a burger, but when I tell them to call, they say ‘forget it.’”

A Tel Aviv restaurant that's been closed down due to coronavirus restrictions during Israel's second lockdown, September 2020
A shuttered restaurant in Tel Aviv, during the current lockdown. "Even if you stick to the rules 100 percent they’ll always find something wrong," says one restaurateur.Credit: Meged Gozani

Outside Keton, a veteran restaurant that brands itself a Jewish bistro, are three empty tables with white tablecloths, all of which have been reserved for weeks ahead, we're told. Two are “reserved for Gila Gamliel,” the environmental protection minister, and the third for “the prime minister’s advisers, Reuven Azar and Topaz Luk.” All three are people who have blatantly violated the pandemic regulations that business owners feel are being brutally enforced against them during the current lockdown.

“That’s how I vent my frustration,” said Orna Raskin, Keton’s owner. “I think it’s a scandal that we can’t offer proper takeout, but that’s what happens when nothing is being properly managed.

“I can’t tell you whether it’s just to save Bibi from trial or whether it’s to preserve the ultra-Orthodox as an electoral power,” she added, using Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's nickname. “But the moment you give a break to part of the public, it creates chaos.”

Raskin tries to function as well as possible despite that chaos, explaining “I’m not interested in getting into trouble because of the police’s interpretation” of the current regulations. In the previous lockdown, she said she was fined after a customer was caught with a Keton bag on the street; the inspectors put two and two together and understood that something had been taken from somewhere.

This time that won’t happen, Raskin asserted, because now she hands out her food in unlabeled bags. And that's not all. While other eateries allow direct contact between them and the customer, dispensing orders from a distance of seven meters, there is no direct contact at Keton with the clientele.

Their system is to take credit card details over the phone and to ask the customer to wait a reasonable distance from the restaurant for a Wolt delivery person who’s passing by on the way to another address. Raskin simply asks the delivery person to do her a favor and take an order over to the nice guy seated on the bench.

“The customers understand that they need to wait," she said, "and that’s the end of the story.”

For some businesses finding these loopholes is an existential need; there are others that can afford to obey the letter of the law, as it were. On the seam line between fear and privilege, they live within the limitations of regulations, as narrow as they might be.

“It’s clear to us that there’s no reason in the world why people can’t order takeout food the same way they stand in line at the supermarket,” the manager of a well-known Tel Aviv eatery said. “But it’s not worth it to us – neither the fine nor all the attention. After you get fined just once they keep coming back and who needs it? The enforcement authorities aren’t always there but you worry some van may come along, a cop, an inspector, and even if you’re sticking to the rules 100 percent they’ll always find something wrong anyway."

His restaurant "manages not to lose money thanks to the deliveries and we even earn a little, which gives us the luxury of conceding on the short-distance deliveries. Some businesses don’t have orders in such quantities or they’re not suited to the format, such as cafes – and I get it that otherwise they’d go hungry or bankrupt. The complete collapse of our entire enterprise lurks right around the corner.”

Tel Aviv may be the capital of industry and business, but just as there are streets in other cities, too, there is also street food in those locales too. “Do not enter,” a big sign hung on a sandwich shop in Holon says. Since it doesn’t say on the other side “Do not exit,” the proprietor goes out to bring his patient customers their food.

“Who says I’m not afraid?” he said, of the consequences of possibly not adhering strictly enough to the rules.

“I worry, so what? I also worry about not working. The biggest mistake of all is not permitting takeout because anyone can place an order for a delivery but not everyone can afford it," he added. "And besides, if I tell someone they can’t come in but they want to wash their hands before eating, should I not allow them to do that? And if they need to use the facilities, should I refuse to allow them to, and make them piss seven meters away?”

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