Israeli eateries and bars make a cautious return to lfe

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Jérusalem (AFP)

An espresso, a kebab, a beer or a spritz on the terrace: after more than two months of coronavirus lockdown, Israeli restaurants, cafés and bars on Wednesday began cautiously reopening.

Despite public hunger for a social life and an end to COVID-19 restrictions, budgets are tight, many businesses are still closed and unemployment is at a record high.

In west Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda shuk (market) the tables of restaurants and bars were almost all empty at lunchtime on Wednesday, their first day of business since a government-ordered closure took effect on March 15.

"People have no more money and cannot afford to go out," said Lucas Sitri, 42, owner of a bar serving Argentine empanadas.

From the start of Israel's Covid-19 outbreak, authorities imposed strict social distancing, compulsory wearing of face masks and use of mobile phones to track and trace those meant to be self-isolating.

To date the country of nine million has recorded 281 deaths, and has around 2,000 active cases.

The economic toll has been bruising, with unemployment soaring from just over 3 percent to 27 percent and a near shutdown of flights in or out.

Sitri said that in normal times about 60 percent of visitors to the colourful shuk are tourists.

"They have not returned," he said, explaining the lack of customers on Wednesday, a day before the start of the Jewish festival of Shavuot, marked by Christians as Pentecost.

In the contested city of Jerusalem, places of worship have reopened to accommodate a limited number of believers.

At Christianity's holiest site, the church of the Holy Sepulchre in the walled Old City of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, the public must make an appointment to enter.

The nearby Al-Aqsa mosque compound is to reopen Sunday after a two-month closure.

But in Mahane Yehuda, tables were filling up Wednesday at the iconic family-run restaurant Azura, known for its stuffed eggplant, kebabs and several varieties of hummus.

- 'Coming back to life' -

As decreed by health authorities, its waiters are gloved and masked and tables are separated by about 1.5 metres (five feet).

"We have lived through a very difficult period, (but) life is slowly resuming," said owner Shabi Azura, 55.

But he fears a second wave of infection.

"It would be a real disaster," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said that "a second wave could be more deadly than the first", but the authorities have nevertheless decided to lift most restrictions while keeping the obligation to mask up in public.

Last weekend, before the official easing, cafés and bars in the coastal city of Tel Aviv responded to a heatwave by serving chilled beer, spritz and coffee without apparent interference from police and municipal inspectors, AFP journalists noted.

Mask use, although mandatory, was far from universally observed.

"We are happy to see out clients again after a long period at home," said Shamir Aloni, owner of Rothschild bar, on Tel Aviv's central Rothschild Boulevard.

"The boulevard is beginning to come back to life," he said.

Although some eateries have been serving takeaways for a while, Wednesday was the first day in-house dining was allowed.

But several establishments remained solely in takeout mode with chairs and tables stacked inside the premises.

Back in Jerusalem, guards at the entrance to Mahane Yehuda checked the temperatures of visitors, almost all of whom wore masks.

At Kurdish kebab grill Yehudit, owner Yehudit Yehezkieli was upbeat, despite the small number of seated diners.

"I recognise that it was a difficult period but I am optimistic and people will come back," she said.