JEDDAH: Growing fears over coronavirus have left normally busy public spaces in Saudi Arabia all but empty as people respond to increased safety measures and self-isolation efforts.
In unprecedented scenes, airport halls, schools, malls, sports venues, cafes and restaurants, as well as mosques, are largely deserted and eerily quiet.
The Kingdom has not classified the virus threat as “high” yet, but strict measures are being put in place to minimize the chances of spread, including temporary closure of schools, universities, and entertainment and sports events.
At King Abdul Aziz International Airport, one of the world’s busiest hubs, the departure and arrival halls are less busy amid declining traveler numbers worldwide.
Flight arrivals are checked for fever, cold and cough symptoms as medical staff along with airport staff keep a sharp eye out for anybody who could be carrying the virus.
Many shopkeepers at malls in the Kingdom are experiencing a sharp slump in sales.
Ahmed Shawqi, a salesman at the Red Sea mall, told Arab News that most stores had already seen a negative impact because of the virus. “It makes sense. Consumers who are worried about what appears to be a global epidemic will avoid gathering in public spaces with large crowds,” he said.
However, supermarket manager Adel Al-Ahmadi said: “Around 80 percent of our customers are still coming. It is business as usual for us. We haven’t experienced any slump in sales.”
Sami Abu Ali, who mans the reception at a mall in Al-Rwais district, said that consumers will certainly change their habits if the situation gets worse. “Avoiding public spaces with large crowds is normal these days, and we have definitely noticed our visitor numbers are lower than usual,” he said.
Inside the malls, sales assistants more accustomed to offering advice on expensive handbags instead were helping customers with surgical masks.
Sporting fixtures and venues have also been hit by virus fears. The Saudi Basketball Federation began its playoffs on Saturday in Jeddah behind closed doors, with no spectators watching the action.
Games were played on television, with the sound of cheering fans missing from the coverage.
On Monday, Saudi authorities banned cafes and restaurants from serving shisha. While many cafe owners welcomed the ban on health grounds, some still seen to be offering shisha.
Ali Al-Shihri, owner of a shish cafe in Al-Rawdah district in Jeddah, said: “We are open, but the number of customers is very low since the coronavirus issue started.
“As you can see, the cafe is empty and has been for the past three days.”
Prayers at mosques normally attract crowds of worshippers, but this week there has been a significant decline in numbers at mosques across major cities.
Ahmed Abu Al-Hassan, a regular worshiper at Bin Hanbal Mosque in Al-Rawda district, said: “Any worshipper who feels symptoms such as fever, cold, coughing or sneezing, should pray at home and not attend the mosque. He should not pray in congregation, not even for Friday prayers.”
Many people said that they plan to avoid public areas, and skip events, weddings or graduations. Amid growing fear over the virus, people’s behavior and the way they communicate with each other are changing. Greeting by kissing and shaking hands is no longer acceptable to many.
The health ministry has said that government entities are doing everything possible to limit the risk of spread. The community has responded well, working to keep people safe and risk free, it said.