Last week, after several violations of the coronavirus lockdown by Israel's elected officials were reported – including Sara Netanyahu’s house call from her hairdresser – more and more independent professionals and small-business owners began calling for civil disobedience against the government in the form of defying lockdown measures.
It’s not yet clear whether the calls have caused a business owners’ revolt, but many stores and other small businesses considered nonessential during the pandemic have continued to operate in secret, behind curtains or half-closed doors.
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According to a survey published in July by Dun and Bradstreet Israel, in the first half of the year 37,600 businesses in the country closed, including 1,500 bars, cafes and restaurants and around 450 clothing and shoe stores. The business analytics firm estimates that 80,000-85,000 firms in Israel will go out of business this year, an 85 percent rise from 2019 and a 7 -8 percent decline in the number of businesses.
Here are a few of the creative solutions that some business owners have used to keep their heads above water despite the restrictions.
The sale of flowers is prohibited? Call them ‘agricultural products’
Business serving the public cannot open, with the following exceptions: Food stores, pharmacies and other stores selling hygiene products, opticians, hardware and home improvement stores, laundries, computer and cellphone repair services; delivery services.
The solution: “Essential” stores also sell nonessential items; expanded use of delivery services.
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Our survey of Tel Aviv, conducted on Wednesday, from Florentine in the south to the “old north” of Ibn Gabirol Street turned up dozens of clothing, flower, houseware and toy stores, among others, operating under various types of cover – despite the risk of incurring a fine of 5,000 shekels ($1,480). Nevertheless, they were a small minority, and most stores in the prohibited categories seemed to be closed.
At a toy store whose door was wide-open, the seller asked us to remain outside, saying he’d bring us whatever we wanted. When we asked if there was a problem operating under the lockdown, he shrugged his shoulders and repeated: “I’ll get you whatever you need. I need to make a living.”
The door of a nearby houseware store was half-closed, but the seller acted as if there was no lockdown. When we asked if he was allowed to sell openly, he replied: “Of course, there are deliveries so it’s permitted.” He dismissed the possibility of being fined with a wave of his hand. “Why should I be fined? Look at the sign at the entrance,” he said, pointing to a sign saying the store uses a delivery service.
At a flower shop in central Tel Aviv, the seller admitted that she operated the store under the exemption granted for establishments offering fresh food. In fact, fresh herbs such as mint, cilantro, parsley and rosemary were for sale. She said she used a delivery service for the shop’s usual trade, flower arrangements and potted plants, but added, “If you see a bouquet you like, you can buy it now, no problem.”
Roee Cohen, the president of the Israel Federation of Small Business Organizations (Lahav), is aware of the practice. “There are all sorts of tricks and it’s not unique to Tel Aviv, it’s everywhere.” He related that in Holon, he saw a clothing store with a few crates of fruits and vegetables at the entrance, operating as usual.
“When I asked the owner about it, he explained that he has five children that he needs to feed, so he went to the wholesale produce market and bought the produce. I also saw a car wash where customers park 200 meters away, call the business and someone takes their car and returns it afterward. Why? Because car washes are permitted to work if it involves transportation.... It’s absurd. People find solutions under a rock in order to stay afloat. It shouldn’t have reached this point.”
If Sara Netanyahu can do it...
Hair and beauty salons and personal care services are prohibited.
The solution: Go underground.
Some hairdressers, cosmeticians and even tattoo artists are paying house calls or receiving customers in their homes.
A pedicurist from Rishon Letzion who asked to remain anonymous has turned her home into a makeshift nail salon. “The first lockdown nearly wiped me out financially. This time I decided not to rely on anyone else, certainly not on the government, so I continue to work,” she says. “I have a group of regular customers, and at first I told only a few whom I trust, and each one asked for permission to tell just one close friend who lives nearby. As a result, I’m working almost every day. I wear a face mask and observe Health Ministry rules because I don’t want to endanger the customers. I don’t get it, why is it wrong?”
After Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, violated lockdown regulations to have a hairdresser come to the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem recently, a trade association called for a repeal of the prohibition, saying the current restrictions have turned them into unwilling criminals.
Coffee in a paper bag
Cafes and restaurants are delivery-only.
Solutions: “close deliveries,” such as to a nearby street bench and for a distance of seven meters and more; turning a restaurant into a delicatessen; selling takeaway in sealed containers.
Before the coronavirus crisis, Israel had more than 14,000 restaurants, but after the first lockdown that number fell below 12,000. The Israeli Restaurants and Bars Association estimates that the current lockdown will result in the closure of over 3,000 more.
Many restaurants, including veteran establishments such as have transformed into delicatessens, selling prepared food, in order to continue to serve their customers.
Delicatessens are permitted to operate under the lockdown, but some of them flout the rules by selling coffee, juices and small sandwiches for takeaway. Some of the delis try to camouflage their illicit trade by brown-bagging the beverages.
“It’s one of the absurdities of the regulations, and it explains why it’s so hard for the public to cooperate with them,” says Shai Berman, who heads the trade association. “The moment there’s a business, like delis or bakeries, selling additional goods, it’s impossible to demand that they open the business [but] sell only some of their products. It’s obvious that it doesn’t work.”
During our tour of Tel Aviv, we stood on a relatively long line outside one of the city’s most popular delis, where we bought coffee to go without a problem. When we asked the seller about it, he replied with a smile, “You simply sell carefully.”
Reuters contributed to this report.