RIYADH: Restaurants and coffee shops in Saudi Arabia have reopened their dine-in sections to customers after more than two months of closure as a part of the lockdown imposed by the government to limit the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
The reopening comes as a part of the second phase of a government plan, announced on May 26, to resume economic activity and gradually return to normal.
The second phase reduces the curfew and increases time allowed for people to venture out to 14 hours a day, and permitted the resumption of domestic flights.
Arab News toured different neighborhoods in Riyadh, and noticed a large number of people meeting their families and friends in restaurants and coffee shops. Most of them adhered to the government’s regulations of social distancing and were wearing face masks.
Siham Hassanain, CEO and founder of Siham International Trading Co. that owns and operates a chain of restaurants and coffee shops, said that she had not expected such a huge number of people to show up.
“People want to go out, yet the coronavirus still exists. It still poses a danger and is still spreading.”
The Ministry of Municipal and Rural affairs posted a series of tweets regarding the protocol that restaurants and coffee shops should follow.
As per the protocol, they are obliged to limit the maximum number of clients who can sit at a table to 5 people unless members of one family. It is also mandatory for restaurants and coffee shops to check the temperature of customers, and ensure a space of at least 1.5 meters between them.
The regulations also advise food providers to use disposable items to serve food such as paper or plastic cups and dishes as well as electronic food menus. It also restricts some practices that may contribute to the spread of the virus such as serving Shisha or opening children’s playing areas in shops.
Hassanain said that most people were complying with government instructions, and most of the violations had come from teenagers and young adults.
Riham Ahmed, a 23-year-old student from Riyadh, said she chose to have her lunch with her friends in a restaurant despite fears expressed by her family.
“I’m taking all the preventive measures, putting (on) my face mask and staying away from crowded places, but I have to meet people and go outside, I can’t afford more time of isolation at home,” she said.
The government has also laid out rules and regulations for employees returning to work in the state and private sectors. For the time being, offices are not to be filled to capacity, with only 30 percent of employees allowed to occupy them at any given time, and those in offices must have their temperatures checked prior to entering the building.
The rules also state that handshakes are banned, face masks must be worn at all times, and employees must use sanitizer to wash their hands regularly throughout the day. Furthermore, employees with preexisting health conditions such as immune deficiencies, asthma or respiratory problems, or the morbidly obese, are all exempt from returning to work.
The ministry also recommends that digital means be relied on as much as possible in order to minimize contact and try to prevent people from returning to their offices unless necessary. The full list of regulations is available on the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development’s website.
Sarah S, a government employee, told Arab News that she had gone back to work but that she was not sure how much she liked the environment. “The office was mostly empty, and it felt wrong. Like when you stay late on a Thursday or come in on a weekend. It’s very eerie and a little unsettling to see so many empty desks,” she said.
She added that while the office was taking every precaution, people were still cautious about the reopening and a constant sense of apprehension still filled the office.
“Everyone is on edge. It will take a lot of time for us to readjust to the idea of being in an office. Things that seemed so normal and mundane before, like handshakes, or sharing files, are all causes for concern now,” she said. However, some employees, who are still working from home, feel the opposite way and wish that they could be in the office instead.
Nawaf M, a human resources employee at a private company in Riyadh, said that everyone from his department was still working from home, but he would prefer to be in the office.
“I don’t like working from home. I feel like the office atmosphere is so important to maintaining a sense of professionalism and producing results,” he said.
While he realized that the threat of the coronavirus is still strong, he said that practicing good “pandemic etiquette” would ensure his safety and allow life to regain some normality again.