For the first time in over a month, Beijing restaurants opened their doors for indoor dining on June 6 as the city eased COVID-19 containment measures in place to flatten the latest outbreak. Zhao Yuan, an employee at a Beijing internet company, said she can't wait to get off work and run into one of her favorite eateries.
"I can't wait to walk into one of my favorite restaurants and order a full spread of dishes as soon as it opens for dinner today, I just can't decide which restaurant I go to," said Zhao. "There are just so many things I want to eat now."
Beijing banned dine-in services at restaurants, among other measures, in early May as the five-day Labor Day holiday kicked off to contain the newest wave of Omicron. Restaurants and bars in the city have been restricted to takeaway only, which was a big blow to the food and beverage industry.
Beijing on Monday relaxed its COVID-19 curbs, allowing indoor dining. Other business and social activities will also gradually return to normal, traffic bans will be lifted in most areas in the capital city, employees are allowed to return to the office, most students will be able to return to campus to attend in-person classes from mid-June, and couriers are allowed to enter residential communities. Public places such as libraries, museums, cinemas and gyms are allowed to resume operations, with the total visitor flow not exceeding 75 percent of maximum capacity.
Beijing and China's commercial hub Shanghai have been returning to normal in recent days as COVID-19 prevention and control measures are gradually eased in both cities.
Some of the more enthusiastic diners started lining up outside restaurants at 11 p.m. on Sunday, just to be the first customers to walk inside at midnight when the doors were finally flung open.
More than 200 diners began queuing outside Huda Restaurant in Guijie, Dongcheng District, an hour before the well-known crayfish eatery reopened.
"By midnight, when the restaurant reopened for indoor dining, over 150 diners went in," said a photographer who was there documenting work resumption in Beijing.
"Because the restaurant can only operate at half of its capacity ... over 50 diners didn't get in, and had to wait outside for even longer. The line became even longer after the first batch of customers went in, and new diners kept coming and joining the line," added the photographer, who declined to give his name.
Even though Zhao didn't stand outside of a restaurant at midnight, she said she is eager to return to a time when dining-in was the norm.
Before the containment measures were in place, Zhao and her husband would frequent restaurants at least twice a week. "Neither of us is a good cook, so we go to restaurants on weekends to eat better. Dining out truly makes us feel better, especially after a week of hard work," said Zhao.
During the containment, even though takeaway was available, Zhao didn't take advantage of it. "The food doesn't taste as good when it travels in a box, I also don't like eating out of plastic, and don't want to produce all that packaging waste," she said, feeling happy that her weekly routine is back.
However, Zhao worries that a few of her favorite restaurants, which are small, family-owned establishments, may not have weathered the storm. One of her favorite barbecue restaurants, which only has five tables, said it would suspend operations in mid-May and has not yet announced a reopening date.
A hit to the hospitality industry
COVID-19 dealt a big economic blow to the catering industry, if not the entire brick-and-mortar retail industry in the capital city.
Restaurants in Beijing have come up with creative ways to serve customers and drum up business.
Besides offering delivery through platforms such as Meituan and JSS, Groovy Schiller's, a German restaurant in Sanlitun, Chaoyang District, bought an e-bike to let their employees make free deliveries to customers within a 5-kilometer radius and launched some special offers for takeaway drinks.
However, even with those efforts, "the sales were much lower than having indoor service," said Jack Zhou, the owner of Groovy Schiller's.
Restaurants could still rely on takeaway orders to recoup a fraction of their lost business, but for bars that only sell cocktails, the "no indoor dining policy" spelled disaster, as virtually none of their customers ordered takeaway cocktails.
"Our fixed operational cost per month is at least 80,000 yuan ($12,048), with over 30,000 for rent, 30,000 for employees' salaries, and the rest for miscellaneous fees," said Jim Jia, the owner of Herbal Bar in Sanlitun. "So when we don't open for business, we lose at least 80,000 yuan per month."
Many restaurants attempted to eke out a profit by setting up street stalls to sell food. Jia imitated the move, trying to sell cocktails, but to no avail.
"Only some of our regular customers would come hang out with us and support us by buying a few drinks, but the regular customers could only come once a week. Without new customers, it doesn't work," said Jia.
The Beijing government currently allows restaurants and bars to operate at 50 percent capacity. "If the regulation were not in place, our bar would be packed tonight. Business will return to normal gradually, but I understand the policy," said Jia. "I'm just so happy that indoor dining has resumed. If (the restrictions) lasted another half-month, we would be forced to close down."
Zhou predicted that as the social distancing and limited capacity measures continue to ease in the coming weeks, restaurants will see more customers at the beginning because of pent-up demand, but levels will return to normal thereafter.
Government support measures
Luckily for Jia, government support measures arrived just in time. After the containment measures, the Beijing government issued a slew of policies ranging from cutting or waving rent for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) affected by the COVID-19 for three to six months, to tax and fee cut measures.
"I rented space from a state-owned company, so by the middle of May, they contacted me and offered to waive my rent for three months; that's life-saving for my business," Jia lauded.
To cope with future uncertainties, Jia has decided to apply for a catering license, so that his business can offer takeout food.
"The only thing we can do is try our best to satisfy our customers and get better. We cannot predict the future, we can just hope the COVID-19 will be over soon," said Zhou.
Read more: Beijing authorities plan rent waivers to support small business