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April 20, 2020

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Business gathering pace as pandemic weakens

Shanghai’s social and economic life is gathering momentum as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes in China.

For 24-year-old flower shop assistant Zhang, everything is changing for the better.

She works at a flower shop near the Nanjing Road W. Station on Metro Line 2, a prime spot usually teeming with commuters.

When the shop reopened on February 20 after being closed for a month, business was lackluster, since many office workers had been told to work from home. 

Instead of continuing to operate at a loss and be exposed to infection, Zhang’s boss decided to close until further notice from the Nanjing Road W. Subdistrict, which oversees commercial establishments in the area.

When it reopened in early March, Zhang noted a rebound in sales, with 30 to 40 customers making daily purchases averaging 30 yuan (US$4.28).

“Although this sum fell short of the numbers recorded before the outbreak, it’s a sign the worst may have passed,” said Zhang, a native of Fuyang in Anhui Province.

Because the pandemic reduced foot traffic, the landlord offered to cut rent by about a third.

“In times like this, this act of generosity is what we need most,” Zhang said as she tied a bouquet of tulips and daisies for a customer.

While some larger flower vendors may be grappling with a supply shortage owing to hampered logistics caused by the pandemic, Zhang said this wasn’t a problem for her, as most of their flowers are sourced from local wholesale markets.

The mass self-imposed quarantine advocated by health experts months ago has pushed up demand for services such as food delivery, already part and parcel of urban life.

Shanghai Daily spoke to a migrant surnamed Ji, who works at a GII Wonton chain store on Weihai Road.

Ji said she spent 14 days in home quarantine before returning to work. In an account that echoes the experiences of many, the Guizhou Province native said the measures to ensure sanitation and disinfection at the 40-square-meter eatery at first struck her as “a bit stringent, even over-strict.”

But as news spread of the gravity of the outbreak, she realized these measures were for the welfare of the general public.

“The first thing we do every morning before the store opens is to mop the floor with disinfectant and wash our hands before preparing a meal,” she said.

As she spoke, a colleague was ladling steaming hot wontons into a disposable plastic food box.

She sealed the box, flagged it as “for delivery” and laid it on the counter for pickup by deliverymen.

“We did notice fewer customers coming in to eat on the premises,” said Ji. “But income from the takeaway business has sort of compensated for that.”

She said her wonton shop, a local brand operating on a central kitchen model, sells some 60 packs of wonton per day, generating an average 20 yuan from each transaction.

Delivery is an increasingly important revenue stream for more established restaurants looking to serve cooped-up customers.

The Boxing Cat Brewery, a pub popular with expats, beer lovers and revelers, resumed operation in early February with all of its three outlets only handling takeaway orders at first.

“We have been dutifully complying with government regulations and rules on quarantine,” said Lee Tseng, the co-founder and general manager.

The Chinese Canadian said customers and delivery drivers are required to have their temperatures checked and health claims validated through a mobile app before they can enter.

The pub also rearranged seats so diners could keep a distance from each other, in line with advice on social distancing.

Tseng said most of his employees are back at work. Despite a cash flow problem, which he admits affects everyone in the business, he decided not to cut wages or impose any mandatory unpaid leave.

“We would like our employees to know that we are in this together and are there for each other,” he said. 

He considered himself lucky to be eligible for a rent waiver of two months at a branch as the landlord chose to join a government campaign to cut tax, rent or defer social security payments to help businesses in distress.

Media reports in February showed that 34 state-owned landlords had reduced or waived rents worth an estimated 2.5 billion yuan for about 35,000 small-scale tenants.

Tseng said such moves will support some cash-strapped businesses. On top of that, he hopes the government can follow up with policies and incentives to help more vulnerable merchants over their difficulties.

“For example, perhaps easing access to bank loans or issuing cash stipends to households could go some way toward stimulating consumption and revving up the economy,” Tseng said.

Nonetheless, he said caveats about safety still apply. “Public health remains the top priority,” he said.

Although it might boost consumer confidence to see throngs of people at tourist spots nationwide during the recent Qingming Festival holiday, he is keenly aware of the need for social distancing, citing official pleas to maintain precautions amid what is now a global pandemic.

“Better to be safe than sorry,” Tseng said.


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