Retail Chains Ready to Defy the Lockdown, but Most Smaller Stores Don’t Dare

A trip down Tel Aviv’s Ibn Gvirol finds that most stores are closed or do business quietly ■ But small businesses are Israel's lifeblood - and they haven't seen much help from the top

A small retail store serving a customer despite the lockdown in Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.
A small retail store serving a customer despite the lockdown in Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz

As anyone walking down Tel Aviv’s Ibn Gvirol Street this week could see, small business owners’ loud cries of rebellion against lockdown restrictions has met up with the harsh reality: Their anger is not complemented by any collective organization.

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As of Monday, businesses up and down the commercial thoroughfare were shuttered. Many shop windows displayed “for rent” signs. The few who opened for business expressed fear and frustration: Should they violate the lockdown and risk a 5,000-shekel ($1,480) fine or lose whatever business there is to rivals?

The Facebook group “There won’t be a lockdown,” which counts more than 60,000 members, promised to offer free legal help to retail businesses fined for opening. But on Ibn Gvirol, few business owners, bruised and battered by two lockdowns, were prepared to risk another financial expense.

In contrast, the big chains have declared war and are ready to act if the rules aren’t eased soon.

A store conspicuously opened during the lockdown on Ibn Gvirol street, Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.
A store conspicuously opened during the lockdown on Ibn Gvirol street, Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

The Association of Retail, Fashion and Cafe Chains, which has 400 corporate members with a combined 18,000 outlets, announced that next Sunday the chains planned to reopen for business – including those in malls. That’s long before the November 15 date tentatively set for lifting the restrictions on stores and the November 29 date for restaurants and cafes.

Among the chains belonging to the association are Israel’s biggest: Fx Group, Castro-Hoodies, Brill, Renuar and Tzomet Sfarim.

“The worst is that we’ll be fined 5,000 shekels, but we can’t continue this way. The government directives are neither logical nor based on contagion or morbidity data. They are decided by political deals and we won’t lend a hand to that,” said one apparel chain owner, speaking on condition of anonymity, who plans to open his shops next week.

The government directives are neither logical nor based on contagion or morbidity data. They are decided by political deals and we won’t lend a hand to that.

The owner of an apparel chain

Ronen Nehmani, who owns the Cafe Cafe group, one of the largest cafe chain in Israel, said big retailers would be willing to delay reopening by a few days more if they can reach an agreement with the government. “But no more than that,” he warned.

A man stands outside a jewelry store, Ibn Gvirol street, Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.
A man stands outside a jewelry store, Ibn Gvirol street, Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Malls are allies

Some of the mall operators, such as Big Shopping Centers, say they won’t stop tenants from reopening their stores. As to the risk that inspectors will arrive to close them, one association member said that “the chains have thousands of stores – how can they close all of us? They’ll grow tired long before we do.”

Avi Schumer, who owns the Tzomet Sfarim bookstore chain and is on the association’s executive committee, lays the blame for the incipient rebellion squarely on the government.

“We’re trying to be law-abiding, but the government is forcing us to open... The data has repeatedly shown that we’re not a source of contagion and as things stand now, if most of us don’t reopen, the chains will simply collapse,” said Schumer. “If we were in a hermetic lockdown, no one would be talking about opening in violation of the rules, but we’re talking about a political lockdown, not a public health lockdown.”

A toy store open despite the lockdown on Ibn Gvirol street, Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.
A toy store open despite the lockdown on Ibn Gvirol street, Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

While the big chain say they don’t fear penalties, that is not the attitude on Ibn Gvirol, even though many say that inspectors usually leave with a warning and rarely impose fines.

The stores that are open, mainly those selling toys, books, apparel and housewares, as well as repair shops, operate behind closed doors to keep under the radar. Most of those who spoke to TheMarker said they didn’t want to be identified, neither personally nor by the store’s name.

Some shop owners opened their doors but when they discovered a journalist and not a shopper, they quickly announced that the store wasn’t open to customers and they were only accepting phoned-in orders. They explained they were in the shop by chance, to clean or to check inventory.

Others, mainly food-related businesses such as the ice cream chain Vaniglia, allowed customers to come in to order, in violation of lockdown directives.

A customer ordering ice cream from a store on Ibn Gvirol street in Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.
A customer ordering ice cream from a store on Ibn Gvirol street in Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Along Ibn Gvirol a few toy and housewares stores allowed customers to buy products from the sidewalk, also in violation of the rules. Apparel and shoe stores as well as hair dressers and cosmeticians were all closed. “I’ll bring what you want to the door, but you can’t come into the store because I would get a fine. It’s like I’m doing a delivery, which is permitted. Everyone is doing it this way,” said one toy store owner.

At a watch shop, several clerks were on hand and opened the door for a reporter from TheMarker. “Since last week, we’ve been open without letting in the public. Anyone who wants their watch repaired or to buy something has to do it from outside,” said one. “No inspectors have been by so far.”

Some of the smaller merchants said they are encouraged by the big chains’ rebellion. Even if the chains reopen next week, few said they would be ready to risk a fine, but said the chains had the political power and organization to make change.

“We’re waiting for when everyone reopens next week – we’ll open together with them,” said the owner of a fashion boutique, who said she was in the shop just to organize her stock. She complained that as an owner-employee, she has received no aid from the government: “I fell between the cracks.”

As an owner-employee, I have received no aid from the government. I fell between the cracks... We’re waiting for when everyone reopens next week – we’ll open together with them.

The owner of a fashion boutique
A shuttered barber shop, Ibn Gvirol street, Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.
A shuttered barber shop, Ibn Gvirol street, Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

The owners of a housewares store said: “I was closed for two weeks because I was in Greece. Today I decided to open for a few hours. The door is closed, but I let up to two shoppers inside at any time. I haven’t seen an inspector.”

Businesses that do open are doing well. “People are hungry to buy because stores haven’t been open for business, so anyone who does open doesn’t do badly,” she said.

Greece is normal

Two businesses along Ibn Gvirol – Rumya Falafel and Chef Balul, a grilled chicken restaurant – are wide open for business and attracting fairly long lines.

“Last Wednesday, I opened for business with the shutter half raised and no one came. But today I just opened normally and that’s it,” said Dudu Kedar Levi, who owns both establishments.

A queue leading to a restaurant despite the lockdown, Ibn Gvirol street, Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.
A queue leading to a restaurant despite the lockdown, Ibn Gvirol street, Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

“The holidays are over and people are coming back to work. I have four kids at home whom I have to feed. I came back from Greece a week and a half ago – there all the businesses are open. People are wearing masks, but everything is working,” he said.

Asked about getting fined, Kedar Levi said, “The police have come by, looked and left. You have to understand, I have nothing to lose. In the worst case, I’ll have to go to court and ask if they can split the fine into 15 installments so I can pay it.”

There are about 600,000 businesses in Israel. Of those, 51.3% are independently owned and have no employees, while 85% employ four or less. All told, small businesses that employ no more than 50 people account for 98.5% of businesses and 35.8% of all business employment. Medium-sized businesses with up to 100 employees bring the share to 99.3% and 44% of all employment.

A restaurant worker serving falafel despite the coronavirus lockdown restrictions, Ibn Gvirol street, Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.
A restaurant worker serving falafel despite the coronavirus lockdown restrictions, Ibn Gvirol street, Tel Aviv, October 13, 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

A survey by Lahav, the association of self-employed people, concluded that by the end of 2021, some 65,000 businesses are expected to fold.

It estimates that 54% of all the workers who were laid off or furloughed were employed in small- and medium-sized businesses or were self-employed, with the biggest losses in the smallest businesses. Meanwhile, less than 4% of the grants the government had promised during the first lockdown to encourage businesses to retain staff have actually been disbursed.

Without major government support, approximately 87,400 self-employed people, more than 18% of the total, are expected to shut down their businesses because of the coronavirus crisis, Lahav estimates.

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