Highway eateries are earning a small fraction of the income they made before the Covid-19 pandemic struck
On any Thursday in normal times, the parking lot of the Miami Leisure Spot highway-side restaurant is filled with long haul busses. Waiters run to serve long-route passengers who rush to finish their meals within 20-minute breaks.
However, last Thursday, only seven cars were parked in the spaces beside the Dhaka-Chattogram highway.
A disinfection gate had been installed at the entry.
Separate toilets for gents and ladies were cleaned – sprayed with cleansing liquids. Basins had liquid soap available for handwashing. Half of the interiors were closed, few chairs were set out in the remaining half with tables placed at a distance from one-another. Waiters were wearing face masks and gloves.
With all these hygiene arrangements, the restaurant near Cumilla had only six customers at around 12 noon on Wednesday.
"Our first floor is closed. Nearly 500 people can dine on two floors. Now you see the numbers," said Mohammad Pavel.
He displayed a photo on his mobile phone taken on a busy day before the pandemic outbreak, showing 39 cars and buses parked in the parking lot and a few others coming in.
More vehicles meant more tips for Mostafa, who manages buses and cars entering and exiting. He hardly makes Tk200 a day now, which had been Tk500 on average
Of the 40 members of the staff, only 12 were on duty, but they were not busy as there were few customers.
"We have a sixth of the customers we had before the lockdown. However, we have to spend more on hygiene," said Omar at the front desk, covered by a polythene sheet.
With its existing establishments and staff, the restaurant needs a minimum Tk3 lakh in daily sales to break-even – but daily sales have dropped to a third of their former amount.
The deluxe restaurant started anew four years ago and had average daily sales of Tk4.5 lakh. "Our sales are Tk1 lakh or 1.2 lakh now," said Mohammad Shahin, a director of the eatery.
He is now calculating the losses for the coming months. "We foresee losses until a vaccine is found. We are requesting our bank to defer instalments for six months to a year to give us breathing room."
The situation is the same for nearly 50 highway eateries between Cumilla and Feni. Highway Inn, Times Square, Off-Beat, Jom Jom, Tajmohol, Noor Jahan are some of them – with grass and weeds growing longer and greener amid thin footfall of diners and very few passenger vehicles plying the roads.
On the four-lane highway, a few cargo vans and trucks are ruling the roost.
Shahin owns a transport company that operates 30 buses on the Dhaka, Laxmipur, Chattogram, Cox's Bazar routes. "All the buses are garaged now. I counted Tk2.6 lakh in operating losses in just two days of reopening and then stopped plying the roads immediately," said Shahin, who recovered from Covid-19 a month ago.
He is not willing to apply for a loan under stimulus packages. "Many will opt for this, but I think additional loans will just add to the burden at a time when businesses show no sign of revival."
Cumilla District Hotel Owners Association president MA Mukit Tipu said many owners are switching to other businesses like bakeries and grocery stores.
On the highway, a few restaurants have reopened, but customers are a rare sight. Very few buses are traveling. Of them, passengers fill half the regular number of seats due to social distancing guidelines. When a bus stops at a restaurant, two-thirds of passengers do not enter it – fearing contamination.
Restaurant owners were expecting a share from the government's stimulus packages. "Our parent association collected a list of restaurants in need of support from us. But neither the owners nor workers have got anything so far," he said.
A small loan amount could be a great help for restaurants to reopen after three months' of closure, he said.
After ready-made garments and transportation, the restaurant sector is a major employer, but it remains neglected, Mukit said, citing massive job losses in the sector. "A restaurant which employed 40 workers has now slashed its workforce to 10. I saw a laid-off waiter selling vegetables."
The service sector is having the hardest time and reopening is not bringing any immediate relief for businesses like eateries and transportation.
The service sector is the first one to be hit most, and the last one to take off, said Syed Mahbubur Rahman, managing director of Mutual Trust Bank.
Due to the complex nature of business, very few banks are involved in the transportation sector, which is having a difficult time amid the pandemic.
"Since reopening, transportation services have been operating at half or a third of their capacity. Restaurants are unlikely to return to normal business operations soon as people will go for dining out only when they have disposable income," Syed Mahbub said, predicting prolonged stagnation for hospitality and tourism businesses.