Grim period awaits Istanbul as pandemic spirals out of control

Regardless of whether or not one thinks that all but shutting down Istanbul's (and the country's) restaurants, bars and cafes is a good idea, a harsh blow will be dealt to the sector, one that will be felt for months. This winter and early spring will not go by smoothly. Establishments have already been dropping like flies.

When a curfew and a new set coronavirus restrictions were announced in Turkey starting on Nov. 20 and the adjacent weekend, it wasn't quite clear what was going on. The government's statement was vague, and did not specify when the lockdowns began and ended. “Is it just me?” I said to myself, assuming I had misread or overlooked something.

A quick glance at Twitter told me I was not alone, as many Turkish people were scratching their heads for the same reason, scrambling to figure out the details. I assumed the curfew would begin on Friday at 8PM, only to learn shortly thereafter that it was starting on Saturday at that hour. Restrictions requiring retail stores to close at 8PM were also imposed starting Friday evening, and all restaurants, bars and cafes were ordered to halt dine-in service and are only allowed to offer takeaway and delivery.

It is now crystal clear that the coronavirus situation in Istanbul has spiraled out of control. Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu said that he has lost sleep due to the severity of the pandemic, and dismissed official daily national death rates based on figures he received indicating the death toll in Istanbul alone was higher than the entire country's.

In a surprising move, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca finally started to announce the total number of positive cases, which clocked in at just under 30,000 on Nov. 27 with 6592 people hospitalized. For months, the government refused to report asymptomatic cases, while doctors in cities throughout the country repeatedly warned that the official figures drastically underrepresented the scale of the pandemic.

As winter approaches and the daily number of cases continue to surge, precautions are a must. However, since the pandemic first reached Turkey, the government has been trying to maintain the balancing act of combating the virus while buttressing a crumbling economy, an effort that has not been successful. With the latest regulations, scores of waiters, bartenders and other service industry employees will be left without work.

Is the most effective approach shutting down table service across the board and eliminating the option of going out with friends to enjoy a meal, a drink, or a cup of coffee? Many restaurants, cafes and bars in Istanbul have gone to great lengths to maintain social distancing guidelines and ensure a hygienic environment. Sitting at an open-air cafe or a bar with windows ajar surely cannot be riskier than waiting shoulder to shoulder in a crowd for a stoplight, or shopping elbow to elbow in a crowded grocery store.

Meanwhile, the city's buses, malls, squares, and bazaars are full. The massive crowds on İstiklal Avenue have not dissipated. Puzzlingly, the curfews, which will continue every weekend until further notice, begin in the evening and end in the morning. Meanwhile, areas popular among tourists and locals alike such as Eminönü and Sirkeci were brimming with life during the day. Since sitting down to eat was off the table, lines of people gathered around a popular stand selling grilled kokoreç sandwiches, not exactly doing their best to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
 
Videos recently surfaced on Twitter of groups of people in Istanbul malls eating takeaway meals from the foodcourt on the ground. Some users mocked and scorned the unfortunate diners but their derision should be reserved for the regulations that paved the way for such an absurd situation.

Regardless of whether or not one thinks that all but shutting down Istanbul's (and the country's) restaurants, bars and cafes is a good idea, a harsh blow will be dealt to the sector, one that will be felt for months. This winter and early spring will not go by smoothly. Establishments have already been dropping like flies, and things are bound to get worse. Many will be left jobless right as their hefty heating bills begin to arrive.

During a recent gathering, five of us sat in a friend's living room and sipped mulled wine. We acknowledged that this too posed a certain risk given the gravity of the pandemic in Istanbul. But since such a setting is essentially the only option for socialization left at the moment, we changed the topic and tried to put our worries aside.  

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