Not quite business as usual in Wuhan

Shops, eateries struggle to pick up the pieces after lifting of curbs on Chinese city, with many of them still shut

Smaller mom-and-pop stores in Wuhan are struggling, with some saying they were promised "help" but details have been scant, and grants are usually claimed retroactively, making cash flow an issue. The Chinese are back on the streets with the reopenin
The Chinese are back on the streets with the reopening of Wuhan city, but most malls remain shut. PHOTO: REUTERS

Cantonese restaurant owner Wang Jing estimates she has lost 3 million yuan (S$604,000) since Wuhan was shut down for more than two months to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

As the authorities slowly began lifting movement curbs in the city in Hubei province, leading up to its reopening last week, Madam Wang also restarted her 11-year-old business. Throughout the lockdown, she had been supplying food to a medical team from Guangdong and offering takeouts for customers.

"For now, we offer delivery on apps like Meituan and Ele.Me but it's still very few orders because not everyone in Wuhan appreciates Cantonese food, so we're struggling," the 66-year-old said.

The restaurant, which can seat up to 400 people over two floors, is usually packed on weekends and has a monthly turnover of 1 million yuan. But with mass gatherings not allowed, business has been tough. Utility bills have gone unpaid while she has tried to continue giving her 10 employees a salary.

"I told myself that if we can hang on till July or August, then it will be okay," she said.

The food and beverage industry has been hard hit by the outbreak - restaurants for which the Chinese New Year is a big revenue source had to offer refunds after the lockdown was announced on Jan 23, just two days before the start of the holidays - and many have shuttered for good.

According to government statistics, 73 per cent of shops selling crayfish - a popular local snack - have resumed operations, mostly doing takeouts and delivery. It is unclear what proportion of the rest have been shut.

A walk down Han Street, a popular shopping district along the Chu River, on a Saturday afternoon showed about one in three shops open, mostly high-street brands like Levi's, H&M and Uniqlo. More local offerings like a bookstore, a photo studio and a gastropub promoting Corona beer were still shut.

At Yishion, a local fashion outlet, customers were made to sanitise their hands, scan a health code and take their temperature before being allowed into the store. A shop assistant said the store is limiting the number of outfits each customer can try, and the clothes are disinfected after that. She had disinfected three outfits so far that day.

People eating outdoors on Thursday in Wuhan city. But business remains tough for eateries as mass gatherings are still not allowed. PHOTO: AFP

Others in the fashion industry, such as Madam Qiu Beiwen, who works in merchandising, are unsure when they can go back to work, or if their companies even have a future.

"It's something we've been trying not to think about since all of us are just trying to survive and get through the days," Madam Qiu said.

She now spends most of her day helping out at her husband's Sichuanese barbecue restaurant in Panlongcheng, a suburb close to the airport.

There are signs that retail has been struggling.

Most Wuhan malls The Straits Times visited were still shut, or had only F&B outlets open, offering takeouts. Chain cafes like Starbucks and Costa Coffee have taken the additional step of setting up makeshift counters at entrances, where customers are handed their purchases. Ordering is done on a cellphone app.

Last week, dozens of shop owners protested outside a mall in Wuhan demanding a rental reduction, a rare show of dissent in a country where such public displays of unhappiness are swiftly shut down.

Smaller mom-and-pop stores in Wuhan are struggling, with some saying they were promised "help" but details have been scant, and grants are usually claimed retroactively, making cash flow an issue. PHOTO: AFP

In videos that were swiftly scrubbed off social media, stall holders were seen sitting outside the Grand Ocean Department Store as police officers looked on. "Exempt us from rental for a year or refund us the lease," they chanted.

Smaller mom-and-pop stores said they were promised "help", but details have been scant and business grants are usually claimed retroactively, making cash flow a problem in the meantime.

At his shop selling drinks, snacks and cigarettes, a shopkeeper, 52, who wanted to be known only as Mr Sun, worried about his business.

"As a neighbourhood shop, we depend on the residents around here but people are still afraid to come out (because of the virus)," he said.

• In tomorrow's Straits Times: Major motor hub Wuhan's auto plants went silent for nearly two months before gradually resuming work - with strict social distancing and hygiene measures. Now, they're frantically playing catch-up.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2020, with the headline Not quite business as usual in Wuhan. Subscribe