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Tel Aviv, the city that never stops, now paralyzed

Although Tel Aviv is known as "the city that never stops," its entire entertainment and tourism scene — plays, other performances, bars, restaurants and hotels, the seashore — have come to a halt as a result of the coronavirus.
A man passes under a "Don't Panic" banner hanging at the entrance of Shuk HaCarmel (Caramel) market in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on March 24, 2020 after Israel barred residents from leaving home for non-essential reasons and stopped night-time public transport, tightening already strict measures to fight the spread of coronavirus. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

A little less than a month and a half ago, Tel Aviv managed to celebrate the Purim holiday as usual: Crowds of celebrators filled the many entertainment spots in the city. The coronavirus outbreak was at its very onset in Israel and people were still allowed to congregate. Since then, Tel Aviv's reality has changed beyond recognition as the coronavirus spread, leading to drastic steps taken in Israel as part of the efforts to curb the spread of the pandemic.

About a month ago, authorities began to impose restrictions and limitations on crowds and gatherings, even leaving one’s home. Thus Tel Aviv, labeled by Israel and the entire world as the “city that never stops,” became paralyzed. The city’s multitude of businesses — including restaurants, bars and hotels — were forced to close their doors. And no one can predict when things will return to normal.

“Now we are sitting on the fence. We weren’t prepared for this scenario,” says Nir Braitman, 36, part owner of two successful bars in the city, Ilka Bar and Cerveza, on the popular Dizengoff Street. On “ordinary” days, Dizengoff is lively and teeming day and night. Braitman, who has been operating for more than a decade in the sphere of bars and party-making, managed to drive through Tel Aviv just before the April 8 Passover closure on the city. He had a hard time taking in the sights he saw.

“I went past the bars, including my own, past the hotels and restaurants; seeing them closed was a sad spectacle. I had never imagined that something like this, the coronavirus, could happen. We were used to working even during wars or military operations, on a more limited scale, true, but people used to come; you could just come over for a beer. Under the present situation, no one leaves the house.”

On March 10, a ban on mass events or gatherings prohibited the congregation of more than 2,000 people. On March 11, this was changed to forbid mass events of more than 100, with the exceptions of schools and army bases. On March 12, gatherings of more than 100 were outlawed even in open spaces. On March 14, it was decided to prohibit the congregation of more than 10 people, and closures were declared on all entertainment/leisure sites, including restaurants, movie theaters, exercise gyms and shopping centers.

At that point, Braitman and the rest of his barkeeper friends in Tel Aviv were forced to face the bleak new reality that had emerged. “At the beginning, we didn’t relate to the changes seriously and everything continued as usual. Sure, we knew that the coronavirus had reached Israel, but we did not foresee its intensity and the depth of the problem. No special instructions were given and places weren’t closed yet; everything was still open. On Purim we worked as usual, we produced parties and lots of people attended and it was great. Only when the prohibitions and limitations began did we start to understand the depth of the problem,” Braitman recalls.

Braitman predicts that the financial damage for the owners of the bars and restaurants in Tel Aviv will be colossal. “We are talking about tremendous sums of money that we can’t totally assess yet, but we assume that we’re talking about billions of shekels: the whole nightlife scene, plays, performances and tourism; bars, restaurants and hotels; the seashore. Everything is paralyzed and as time goes on, the damage only increases. The city at least partly depends on the large numbers of tourists it used to attract, and who knows when they’ll be back. There is no doubt that it will take time for the city of Tel Aviv to return to itself in many different spheres.”

Braitman says he was forced to place the workers on unpaid leave. But what will happen when they return? “We had no choice, and we don’t expect them to wait around for us, either. People need to support themselves and will look for other places of work, or go to the Israeli Employment Service for the time being. I imagine that some of them hope to go into another field, and it is definitely possible that when we get to the stage that we return to work, we won’t have employees because they already will be someplace else.”

Currently in Israel (which has approximately 9 million residents), more than 13,000 people have come down with COVID-19 and more than 170 have died from the virus. Tel Aviv, with its 450,000 residents, includes 450 residents who have contracted the coronavirus (one patient per 1,000 people). Thus, the city has the third-largest number of coronavirus victims in the country, and this certainly does not expedite a return to full municipal functioning.

Yet despite dark predictions that a large number of businesses in Tel Aviv will close for good due to the COVID-19 situation, Braitman leaves an opening for some optimism. “We are in a relatively good place because our businesses are run properly. I don’t envy those people whose businesses are not in good shape. We’ll need to think about what actions to take in order to rebound. The summer is approaching in two months and we really, really don’t want to miss it. The economy will rebound, but not necessarily to the same format. There will be a big change in the consumer and leisure culture: maybe more home deliveries, fewer gatherings. At the moment we don’t have a solution for that, everything is up in the air now. But we are forced to accept the situation and adjust ourselves to the new circumstances that will emerge.”

With its endless assortment of restaurants, hotels and wonderful beaches, Tel Aviv attracts many tourists all year round. But for the last month and a half, hotels and vacation apartment throughout the city have been empty. “It’s a hard blow to the industry, which will require reorganization. Right now we live day to day and cannot plan ahead,’’ says Golan Tambur, the manager of the The Levee upscale boutique hotel on Tel Aviv’s Yehuda Halevi street. Tambur also also manages the vacation-apartment company Tel Aviv Home.

Tambur says that in the days before the outbreak the hotel and the vacation apartments he manages were fully occupied. Now he is focused on economic survival. “Many people cancel. We have only a few reservations. We are working all the time to search for new directions and ways of reducing costs. Whatever we can do. We reduced prices drastically and managed to get a handful of guests — mostly locals who want to spend confinement in better conditions than home or tourists stuck here, who cannot fly back to their homelands.’’

Despite it all, Tambur keeps his optimism. “Nothing will go back to the way it was, but different does not mean worse.’’ 

On April 18, the Cabinet decided to start opening up the economy and personal movement. Some shops will be allowed to reopen, but personal distance measures are to be enforced. Tel Aviv's nightlife scene has still a long way to go before returning to what it was in the city that never stops.

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