Coronavirus: Will Israel's nightlife return to normal post-lockdown?

The image of half-naked strangers rubbing up against each other in smoky air under the spell of house or trance music seems like something once only seen in movies.

DIZENGOFF STREET a week before opening night.  (photo credit: ORIT ARFA)
DIZENGOFF STREET a week before opening night.
(photo credit: ORIT ARFA)
Toward the end of Israel’s third lockdown, the famed Haoman 17 nightclub in Florentine looked like a massive art installation paying tribute to Tel Aviv’s internationally celebrated nightlife scene.
Barely a foot has tread on its dance floor since the lockdowns began. Instead, dirt and dust dance on the floor, bars and cocktail glasses, while the massive machinery – sound and lighting systems and DJ equipment designed to crank up a gyrating crowd until wee hours of the morning – stand forlorn, like the haunted objects longing for someone to be our guest. Instead of buff bouncers, trash and stray cats guard the club entrance.
The image of half-naked strangers rubbing up against each other in smoky air under the spell of house or trance music seems like something once only seen in movies.
While on March 7, Israel rolled out the Green Pass system to enable its holders to dine inside restaurants and drink at bars, nightclubs and dance bars have still been left behind. Dancing at a nightclub is still considered too close for comfort, literally.
Israeli nightlife pioneer Ruben Lublin, owner of Haoman 17 and party-producer extraordinaire, can only sit idly at his desk or on his sofa and wait.
“I’ve been a year in the house watching Netflix,” he said from the eerily empty Haoman 17 offices.
As of now, the Green Pass system doesn’t help him, despite him happily abiding by the idea behind it. He doesn’t want anyone at his club to get infected with the coronavirus.
“You want to get into my club? You have to be vaccinated. That’s my condition,” he said.
His entire staff has gotten the jabs in preparation for an eventual opening.
“Are you telling me that if we are all vaccinated, you’re not going to let me open my club?” he said. “Tell me now so that I don’t have to wait. I’ll close it now.”
The scene on Dizengoff Street with its string of street-side bars lining the pavement, on the other hand, appears just as happening as it was pre-corona days, minus foreigners. No social distancing on these bar stools. Night owls are out with a vengeance – against the lockdowns, the government, and, of course, the virus.
“It’s great to get back to living a ‘kind of’ normal life again and breathe some fresh air, finally,” said Ariel (last name held upon request) of Tel Aviv, who lives in the neighborhood.
Just days before restaurants and bars opened, and even earlier, people defied the rules and curfews. Most bars operated in “TA” (“takeaway”) mode. The city provided a few plastic crates for people to sit on and place their drinks. Bar owners sometimes cheated and paid fines of several thousand shekels.
“People had enough. People are tired,” Ariel said. “They want to get back to life. They realize lockdown is just political and there really is no health reason for it. Everyone is struggling financially, nobody even talks about the mental health of all the people affected by it and the effects of that are worse than the actual disease, especially now that half the population is vaccinated.”
Even now, it’s not clear how strictly owners and customers will enforce the Green Pass rules.
“I went into a bar a few days ago, was reading a book, but they said from the beginning they’re open for everyone, the ones that are vaccinated and the ones that are not,” said David Denemark, an immigrant from Germany who works as a voiceover artist and Wolt delivery guy. He holds a Green Pass.
“On Sunday night, when they opened the restaurants and I had my first delivery and it was full of people, I told the waitress how it’s so nice to see all these people being outside and talking to each other and you having customers.”
ISRAELI NIGHTLIFE and tourism are arguably among the industries hardest hit by the lockdowns.
TZINA BAR on Dizengoff Street during the lockdown. (Photo credit: Orit Arfa)TZINA BAR on Dizengoff Street during the lockdown. (Photo credit: Orit Arfa)
“Tel Aviv nightlife has suffered out of all businesses during corona the most,” said Tel Aviv’s Omer Gershon, a former Tel Aviv bar owner and former creative director of the hip Brown Hotel chain. “They’re the last to be allowed to be open. You have manicure/pedicure shops allowed to be open, gyms are allowed to be open. Bars, clubs and restaurants are the end of the line.”
He and many of his nightlife colleagues believe the rules discriminating against them are arbitrary.
The seeming arbitrariness of the lockdowns has spurred Lilach Sapir, restaurateur and head of the advocacy wing of Israel’s “Igud HaMasadot” (Restaurant Association), to use her free time afforded by the lockdowns to become more active in the “black flag protests” against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She said that 4,000 restaurants have closed in 2020. It’s a matter of survival of the fittest.
“The lockdown is just one testament to his inability to function,” Sapir said via telephone. “We’re not the first to come out of corona but we’re the first with the most lockdowns. When you have no clue how to manage, you just say: ‘Let’s close.’”
Finally, she was thrilled to open her two Tel Aviv neighborhood hotspots, Peacock Bar and Minibar near HaBima. They haven’t operated for a total of 248 days since the first lockdown. In the meantime, she’s lived off of her children’s savings.
“We offered takeaway, but it’s not a living,” Sapir said. “You do it to stay in touch with your customers and so you don’t go crazy, but you don’t make a living from it.”
Her employees have been furloughed, which in Israel is known by the acronym “chalat” (chofesh le’lo tashlum), or unpaid leave. The government offered furloughed employees unemployment benefits. Many workers in the restaurant industry are currently receiving benefits until June, which means they’re content not return to work until then.
“Half of the restaurants can’t open because they have no workers,” Sapir said. Indeed, several establishments advertise on store windows that they’re seeking servers and bartenders.
As a partner of the Layla bar and restaurant in Berlin, co-founded by Israeli celebrity chef Meir Adoni, Sapir noticed a stark contrast between German and Israeli efficiency when it comes to compensating small businesses. The German method is to give direct grants based on profits lost to the employer (which she said arrived in a matter of days after applying). The employer, and not the state, can then compensate the staff for unpaid leave. This method, she said, creates the incentive for workers to remain loyal to their employers and also return to work as soon as the lockdown eases.
Promises of Israeli grants, she said, came only after the Restaurant Association lobbied fiercely for them. Sapir was disappointed that while the Tel Aviv Municipality helped some businesses by providing crates and chairs, city inspectors still enforced the restrictions rather rigorously. She believes that the fines will eventually be forgiven because the system won’t be able to handle the mass of appeals.
“The city’s nightlife is a key aspect of its DNA, and a major part of Tel Aviv-Yafo’s status as the ‘nonstop city,’” said Merav Uziel Refetov, tourism product manager at Tel Aviv Global & Tourism. “We know that our residents are eager to support local businesses, and that can already be seen in the first days following the reopening of the city’s nightlife sector.... While, sadly, some businesses have not survived the lockdowns, in Tel Aviv and across the country, we have used all tools at our disposal to assist those in need. Initiatives include waiving municipal taxes, pedestrianizing busy streets, and enabling restaurants and bars to place tables on sidewalks, thereby boosting capacity that would otherwise be restricted due to social distancing.”
 THE MUNICIPALITY has been encouraging vaccination and, by extension, the Green Pass system.
“Recently, we launched a pop-up vaccination bar to remind young residents of the importance of vaccinations to return to the pre-COVID life that we so dearly loved,” Uziel Refetov said.
Sapir and some of her colleagues have reservations about the Green Pass system. She got vaccinated despite her distaste for the prime minister, who she thinks orchestrated the lockdowns and then the mass vaccination rollout to portray himself as the hero in time for the elections.
“I think if they left it as a choice for the business, the situation would be much better,” she said. “The restaurants will want to do it. And I got vaccinated. I support it. But you can’t force vaccines upon people and you can’t have a business owner discriminate. If they did it as a recommendation or allowed the business owner to decide, there would be a lot more cooperation among customers and owners.”
She’s not sure who will eventually enforce the Green Pass system in private businesses, or how.
Uziel Refetov did not get specific.
“The municipality works closely with local and national authorities, and business owners, to ensure compliance with COVID-19 restrictions across the city,” she said.
In the meantime, Tel Aviv nightlife – to a degree – has made a lopsided comeback. The eagerness to return has generated energy and excitement, but the return of foreigners and dancing will still take time.
“It’s a very happy atmosphere,” Sapir said. “There are more customers than workers. It’s very exciting.”
“It’s wonderful to open,” said Tamara Ben Natan, bar manager of October Bar on Ahad Ha’am Street in Tel Aviv. “Really, I can say from the minute we opened, the place is full to the max. And people are excited to go out and see people. We waited for this for a long time.”
October Bar (Photo credit: Courtesy October Bar)October Bar (Photo credit: Courtesy October Bar)
The owners of October have taken out loans to subsist since being forced to close on September 18, 2020. They have applied and are entitled to government grants but so far “have not received a shekel.” It might take up to a year to recoup their losses. They are doing their best to abide by the Green Pass guidance.
“We try to seat people with a Green Pass. To tell you that it’s practical – to check everyone and they move around or go to the bathroom – it’s difficult.”
With airport restrictions still in flux, it’s still unclear when foreign tourists, even those who have been vaccinated in their own country, will get the chance to partake in a (limited) nightlife scene they can now only envy. Entry is still closed for most foreigners and no international standard has yet been set for a mutual recognition of vaccination certificates. Foreigners without the Green Pass cannot stay in Israeli hotels.
Gershon foresees August as the revival, assuming herd immunity is reached once 80% of the population is vaccinated.
“If we’re going to be a ‘green island,’ hopefully, and they will open the airports for tourism, Tel Aviv might be a paradise island for a couple of months,” he said. “Maybe that will help the nightlife scene. Only if it’s safe, of course.”
Sapir is satisfied for now with raising her glass with just the returning locals and regulars.
“People’s longing is so great that right now those Israelis are enough. Also, Israelis aren’t going abroad. We have the entire population. I think in the summer, foreign tourism will come back.”’
October Bar used to have a clientele consisting of about 20% foreign tourists; for now, they’ve shelved their English menus.
“There is no one speaking English,” Ben Natan said.
But Israelis longing to dance in Tel Aviv’s hotspots will have to wait about another month, predicted Lublin in late February.
“According to the ordinances, there is no prohibition against parties and dancing; however, nightclubs are prohibited from opening,” said Anat Danieli Lev, spokesperson for Israel’s Health Ministry, in early March, without providing reasoning or an expected start date.
Until March 21, Lublin and his nightclub counterparts were prohibited from any type of operation, even producing outdoor parties. Finally, the government announced on March 14 that, in light of the coronavirus R number dropping below 0.8, the party can go on – for Green Pass holders. Lublin’s theory may have proven correct.
“The government is looking for ways to convince young people to vaccinate. Just give the clubs and dance bars the possibility of letting only the people who could get vaccinated, and I promise you, in a month, they’ll get vaccinated.” 