COVID: As Jerusalem reopens, shop owners are excited - and scared

The streets are relatively busy on a Sunday morning, and the shops seem busy, but 'For Rent' signs hang on the windows of dozens of the stores and restaurants that line the street.

Israelis shopping at Mamilla mall in Jerusalem, March 1, 2021.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israelis shopping at Mamilla mall in Jerusalem, March 1, 2021.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A walk down Hillel Street in downtown Jerusalem on Sunday morning provided mixed messages about Israel’s economic recovery.
The streets were relatively busy, and the shops as well, but “For Rent” signs hung on the windows of dozens of stores and restaurants that line the street.
“There are a lot of places for rent here, but there is a sense that things are coming back to life,” said Yossi, a real-estate agent who represents some closed storefront properties. “We are actually starting to get a lot of inquiries about the properties by new businesses.
“A fair portion of the closed businesses you see actually closed at the beginning of the pandemic and have been sitting empty until now. But we are starting to see growing interest as optimism rises that we are reaching the end of the crisis.”
However, commercial rental prices around the center of town are now 30% to 35% lower than they were before the coronavirus crisis, providing a surprising new opportunity for business owners, Yossi said.
Sunday marked the beginning of the latest phase of Israel’s reopening, as restaurants were allowed to welcome vaccinated diners for the first time in more than two months. Hotels and event halls were also given the okay to open in limited capacities, and permission was granted for up to 1,000 arrivals at Ben-Gurion Airport daily.
There is a strong sense of renewal and growth now, said Rochela Peretz, owner of the eponymous women’s boutique on Hillel Street.
“People missed coming here a lot,” she said. “It’s not just a physical need; it’s a psychological need. Coronavirus made a lot of people feel stuck at home, and going out and buying new clothes provides a feeling of vitality and excitement.”
“We opened two weeks ago with the previous easing of restrictions, and the response has been very good,” Peretz said. “I don’t notice much difference between now and before the crisis. The stores that closed were already struggling before the coronavirus hit. There are boutique stores here that generally cater to a clientele that has been more stable throughout the past year. We aren’t at 100% of where we were last year, but I would say we are at about 80%.”
The manager of another women’s clothing store down the block agreed.
“Things are picking up quite nicely,” Yaela told The Jerusalem Post between serving customers. “There is a very good feeling now.”
While Jerusalem restaurant owners generally expressed excitement about Sunday’s reopening, one person who was far less optimistic was Leon, owner of the Beeratenu, Glen and Rabbit Hole bars in the center of town.
Although bars were cleared to reopen on Sunday, “after a year like this, I don’t have any expectations,” he said. “I’ve lost any last bit of optimism. I’ve been in this neighborhood every day throughout the period because Beeratenu has continued to do deliveries. But throughout the period I saw more and more places closing, one place for rent and then another.”
“People tell me they can’t wait to come back to our bars,” Leon said. “But I don’t know what to expect tonight. A lot of our customers have been hurt, and a lot of people are still afraid to go out. It will be better than what was because there will be some work. But it isn’t going to be like it was beforehand, when the city was filled with tourists. I am paying five employees now for all three places, compared with 17 beforehand.”
“People need to understand that reopening a business takes a lot of money and energy,” he said. “We have the extra costs for complying with coronavirus protocols, and our profits are much lower. I’m not excited about reopening at all.”