Safe foot forward: Stepping out still an exercise in caution amid Covid-19

Topics Coronavirus | hotels | Lockdown

Malls and shopping centres reopened after more than two months, but their deserted interiors are a stark reminder of the times we live in (Photo: PTI)
In a world before Covid-19, going to Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (known more popularly as MTR) in Bengaluru for a morning breakfast meant at least an hour’s wait, but a week after MTR opened for diners, the place is far from being at half capacity.

Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa dining out at MTR’s Lalbagh outlet on Saturday hasn’t done much to dispel fears. Families and fitness enthusiasts, who’d pour in straight after gym for hot dosas served with tiny bowls of ghee, are yet to return.

At MTR Indira Nagar, pre-lockdown Sundays would mean about 1,000 diners in their 150-seater place. This past Sunday saw about 200-300 people in a reduced capacity of 50 seats. 

To Mi Home, the standalone electronic store not far from the restaurant, about 140 people have been coming in every day. Before the lockdown, this would fall between 220 and 250, says a staff employee.

In a post-lockdown world, circles and squares painted on the ground (to help physical distancing) and sanitizer stands have become ubiquitous, but they aren’t sole reminders of us living with the virus. 
The near-emptiness of some places is a strong competitor. 

In Gurugram, for instance, buildings surrounding a massive, open-space parking in Sector 29, which are usually lit up like cheap motels, are deserted. Security guards manning ghosted bars and restaurants say the situation stays the same through the day and hasn’t improved in the last week. 

On Friday evening, a two-floor Bikanervala is one of the few places open. Its handful of guests has no problem maintaining safe distance. 

Cozy, neighbourhood cafés in Gurugram’s tony Nirvana Country are taking it slow. C’est La Vie Café, a much-frequented brasserie, which can only afford to serve four tables at 50 per cent capacity, has no plans to open till July. 

It’s equally sized but more popular counterpart, Madison & Pike, is only delivering. 
Similarly, the pizza-boxes piled up on the street-facing window at Brik Oven on Bengaluru’s Church Street are a reminder of how the place has consciously chosen not to allow dining in, yet.

“The government hasn’t allowed us to open restaurants because it is safe, it is being done only to revive the economy,” says Priyank Sukhija, a Delhi-based restaurateur who owns nightclubs, bars, and restaurants like Plum by Bent Chair, Lord of the Drinks, Tamasha, and others. His brands have a presence in four cities through 30 outlets. Sukhija has decided not to open any of his restaurants in Mumbai or Delhi, considering how India’s cases are still on the rise. “If I can’t muster the courage to get out of my house, there is no way I am putting my staff and customers at risk,” he says. 

Further down from Brik Oven, Mayi Gowda, proprietor of Blossom Book Shop, which has two outlets on Church Street, says he’s still waiting for over 60 per cent of the clientele to return. “A 100-150 people are still coming during the weekend, but weekdays it’s only about 20,” he says. 

Across the road is Koshy’s, another one of Bengaluru’s iconic establishments, which is yet to see its literati clientele returning to resume impassioned conversations on culture and politics. These places are still well-off compared with some previously popular shopping places, such as Bengaluru’s Garuda Mall.
Past empty stores on MG Road and Brigade Road, the deserted interiors of the mall over the weekend are a stark reminder of the times. The food court remains shut, and many brands continue to have their shutters down. Those that are up and running have almost no one to attend to.


Standing inside Vero Moda at Garuda, two women in their 40s say the sight of a near-empty mall is depressing. “We just needed to get out of the house after three months of staying home,” they say. “We are not going to try any clothes because we aren’t sure if it’s safe. Initially we thought the virus would be gone in two-three months, but we don’t see that happening.” 

Standalone stores seem to be faring slightly better. Despite light showers, the long queue in front of Mi Home is proof of this. But this varies from city to city. 

In Bhubaneswar, for instance, major standalone stores, such as clothing store Amber on Janpath Road, and select market spots and restaurants, were sealed by authorities for flouting social distancing norms. Odisha is strongly enforcing complete lockdown every weekend and has reportedly collected over Rs 1.25 crore as fine from those not wearing masks in public places. “It’s Raja Parba (a local festival), people obviously want to shop,” says a local resident.
Crowds are mostly absent in Patna’s shopping areas too, says homemaker Shail Devi. When she hesitated getting into a shop at Saguna Mor, a shopkeeper laughingly told her, “If you wanted to stay safe you should have stayed home. Since you are out, you might as well shop.”

According to a survey by Hyderabad-based brand communication firm Janrise, only 18 per cent of their respondents were interested in shopping for apparel and jewellery, which is likely to affect malls. 

Since they opened on Wednesday, Bengaluru’s Orion Mall has seen 6,000-7,000 people come in on weekdays. On the weekend this went up to 8,000. This, says a marketing executive of Brigade Group, which runs the mall, is 60-65 per cent less than their pre-lockdown footfall. “But we are still happy with the steady increase,” he says.

The story of having more on-ground staff than customers they can attend to is one that plays out in metros like Kochi and Kolkata too.
But Delhi-based lawyer Rohit Sharma was surprised to see the crowds that had turned up on a Friday at the city’s Select Citywalk mall. “It didn’t look like we ever had a lockdown, except the fact that people were wearing masks.” While his experience at the mall was mostly pleasant with the staff ensuring there was no overcrowding, he feels not having separate entry and exit points is counterproductive. “After taking all these precautions, I was brushing up against people who wanted to enter and exit the mall. What’s the point?”

In Gurugram’s Galleria Market in Sector 28, a place popular for eateries, people casually stroll, and the few tables in Café Coffee Day and Barista are occupied. There’s a queue outside Lazeez Food and Keventers, and even though guards with temperature guns try ensuring people entering the market are masked, many of them are barefaced and fearless. Some had come with toddlers in prams. Clearly, every city has its unique set of challenges.

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