By Mercedes Palomino
Lima, Jul 21 (efe-epa).- The image of people waiting for a table in a Lima restaurant is a distant memory at this point. In the so-called Gastronomy Capital of Latin America, it’s the tables that are now waiting for diners, and most of the restaurants are largely vacant and yearning to recover at least some of the clientele they served during better times.
After an obligatory lockdown of more than four months, the restaurants in Lima once again opened up this week, although health regulations require them to serve no more than 40 percent of their registered seating capacity with tables separated and the obligatory use of personal protective equipment – facemasks and gloves – for the staff.
“We’re still in the ICU (intensive care unit),” chef Blanca Chavez, the president of the Hotel and Restaurant Association (known as AHORA), referring to the tough economic situation restaurants are facing after being under lockdown for 126 days and with patrons still not sure if they can venture out to such establishments safely.
Peru – the Latin American country with the second-highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, and rated No. 6 in the world for that dire metric – is facing an unexpected situation despite the fact that it was one of the first countries in the region to order an obligatory quarantine for its citizens and suspended the vast majority of economic activities, including restaurant operations.
The lockdown dealt a huge blow to the country’s economy, with the GDP falling by 13.1 percent in the first quarter and by 32.75 percent in May, figures that must be combined with the loss of 2.6 million jobs in Lima alone (equating to a loss of 55.1 percent of the jobs that had existed during the April-June 2019 quarter), according to official figures.
Starting on March 16, when the lockdown was launched, restaurants and food kitchens were ordered closed and they could only resume their activities on May 4 when the authorities began allowing home deliveries of food.
Nevertheless, the sector’s partial emergence from lockdown, Chavez said, has only allowed it to recover “between 10-15 percent of (the regular) sales” it had before the pandemic.
On that difficult road, of the 80,901 restaurants that had been registered in Lima up until the first quarter of this year, according to figures compiled by the National Statistics and Information Institute (INEI), “probably about 30 percent have closed” due to the pandemic.
“And we’re going to see what happens here at the end of the month. With that 40 percent of seating capacity, I believe that really it’s going to be a pretty critical situation, since we’re (only) going to have between 45-50 percent of normal sales,” the AHORA president said.
In addition, the restaurants will not be able to serve a large part of their public, the most than four million foreign tourists who come to Peru each year, since the country’s borders remain closed to international flights.
Despite the obstacles, the chefs and restauranteurs – the key actors in the so-called gastronomic “boom” and those who have propelled Lima into the spotlight as Latin America’s Gastronomic Capital – are not standing still.
“We’re reinventing ourselves, facemasked Peruvian chef Adolfo Perret, the owner of the Punta Sal restaurant chain, a player in the Peruvian gastronomical market for more than 30 years, told EFE.
Although Perret knows what it is to get through critical economic and social times – including the terrorism-plagued period, the El Niño weather phenomenon along the Peruvian coast and even outbreaks of gastrointestinal diseases such as cholera – “there’s been no crisis like this pandemic before.”
So, he has had to adapt and has done so by putting about 50 of his extensive menu of 100 dishes online under the designation QR. Also, he has changed from emphasizing to his staff “human warmth” and now touts “social distancing.”
“Let’s make the effort to get people to consume, and in this we we’ll help ourselves move forward so that this productive chain once again reactivates itself,” Perret said.
One of the first tasks before the hostelry sector, during the new post-lockdown period, is to generate confidence among the public so that diners once more feel safe going out to dinner.
Vladimir Seminos, the chief of operations for the Las Tinajas restaurant chain, said that “confidence comes not only from what you say but also from the actions you take. We have to make clear that we’re complying with the protocols.”
Perret also said that it’s important to educate diners about the established health measures.