Corona’s continuing economic repercussions: 'We need action, not empathy'

Unemployment peaked at 31% in Jerusalem over the summer.

Kadosh Cafe reopened post-lockdown late May 2020 for takeaway.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Kadosh Cafe reopened post-lockdown late May 2020 for takeaway.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
When a tree is uprooted in a forest, it provides opportunities for many other plants to grow.
This proverb reflects the reality that Itamar Taragan, manager of the First Station, has been facing for the past eight months since the coronavirus hit. The restrictions and lockdowns adversely affecting the compound have also triggered a series of local initiatives that have helped the First Station survive as a prominent leisure and entertainment location.
The economic impact of the global pandemic has been devastating everywhere, but Jerusalem is a special case. Most employees in this city of government and other organizations have been able to continue with their work, receiving their salaries as usual. However, local small and medium-sized businesses are facing difficulty. Coffee shops, restaurants and eateries have been hit dramatically.
“[Relaxing the rules on] takeaway and benches and colorful chairs supplied by the municipality have helped. Those who managed to adapt their business to the new conditions will survive,” observes Tarragan.
Unemployment rates in the capital have been higher than the country average, with a peak of 31% this past summer, compared to 28% nationally. Some 35% of the unemployed in Jerusalem are Arab residents, a sector experiencing a dramatic rise in poverty. The tourism industry is another badly hit sector here, where 45% became unemployed, compared to 35% in the rest of the country. A recent survey of civil leadership associations found that a quarter of the civil and nonprofit associations, with over 30,000 employees here, will not resume operations even after the pandemic.
“We need action, not merely empathy,” says Gideon (not his real name), owner of a small city-center business selling tourist merchandise.
“Eighty percent of my business is tourist-based, but we don't have tourists now and nobody knows when they will be back. We asked the landlord to cut the rent or give us a grace period for part of the lockdown, but the answer was negative. Several of us in the same situation have tried hard to hold on, but most are reaching a point we can’t go on.”
According to Gideon, 10% of city-center stores are closing or will shut down soon and the number of “For Rent” signs is growing daily. Under lockdown for much of the past eight months, mall shopss are also struggling, though the damage has a lesser impact on chains.
MEANWHILE, THE municipality has approved NIS 280,000 to upgrade the facades of commercial centers – with up to NIS 7,000 for single-front businesses (for upgrading a showcase and signboard), and NIS 14,000 for double-front businesses. The city’s Business Promotion Division will publish guidelines for these grants as of next week through the municipality’s Eden Company.
The grants are part of a comprehensive program to contribute to local trade and the interaction between business owners and residents and to renew business life in the city as the pandemic winds down with the arrival of vaccines. The grants will further upgrade commercial centers where a physical upgrade was carried out recently, such as in Gilo, Har Nof, French Hill, Kiryat Hayovel, Neve Yaakov, Pisgat Ze’ev, Ramot, Romema, Armon Hanatziv, Beit Hakerem and Kiryat Menahem.
Under the heading “Returning businesses to the neighborhood,” the municipality has offered to cancel the signage fee for the central sign for each business; the reduction of collection items; and the easing of the municipal bureaucracy that complicated life for business owners. Regarding commercial centers as an economic, cultural and community anchor, the municipality has been renovating these centers with a total investment of approximately NIS 16 million. The renovations combine physical upgrades and creating a safe public space with a schedule of cultural and leisure events supported by the municipality’s Culture and Society Administration.
In addition, with the cooperation of the Division for the Advancement of Business, a program of training and professional courses for business owners will focus on upgrading shop window displays, business management, inventory management and online sales, as a basic and comprehensive guide for those who choose – now of all times – to start a business in a commercial center, and will include all the information necessary for a business owner in the fields of supervision, licensing, architecture and more.
“The pandemic has motivated us to think about new initiatives and forced us to be creative in other ways,” muses Tarragan, who has been cultivating a variety of small local eateries at the First Station, including some from the Arab side. “We have reduced rents for all businesses here. Apart from three restaurants, all the others are reopening or plan to reopen shortly. We try to help as much as possible, being aware of the significance of this place.”
Ana Shrier, manager of a small coffee shop at the terminal, takes orders from customers, serves them and keeps smiling. “I plan to change the name of the place to Metro-Terminal, to give it a boost, hoping for better days soon.”
On a regular weekly morning, the First Station seems full of life. The usual blend of Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites come to enjoy a special blend of open-air activity while still wearing masks and keeping social distance. Scattered pods protect them from the cold and the rain.
“Yes,” affirms Tarragan, “people come, order coffee or a beverage and sit for a long time. This is important, but it’s not yet enough to save the businesses.”