Status check: Are Kerala restaurants following COVID-19 protocol for dine-in?

The state government allowed dine-in services with a set of guidelines, such as allowing only fully vaccinated people and 50% seating, however this is not quite followed.
People dining out a restaurant in Thiruvananthapuram as dining out allowed in Kerala
People dining out a restaurant in Thiruvananthapuram as dining out allowed in Kerala
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At half past 12 in the afternoon, the rooftop of Old Skool is nearly full. Five or six tables are lined one after another with little black partitions and hanging green leaves between them. Young people are spread out on their reserved tables. The diner is on the Kuravankonam-Kowdiar stretch of Thiruvananthapuram, famous for its line of eat-outs. Dine-in services in Kerala have been allowed only four days ago and a weekday noon has brought 30 people to the diner at an odd hour – way past breakfast, not quite lunch time.

“We allow mostly only reservations so there will not be a crowd. And we are using only the rooftop so it is open air. Since opening dining services, there are always bookings and the rooftop gets fully booked. Only on request do we allow one or two tables indoors on the floor below,” says an employee of Old Skool.

It must have been a tough wait, these past few months when all but essential shops and services were closed, after the second wave of COVID-19 struck Kerala. It had taken way too long for daily cases to even start dipping from tens of thousands. The government, in its guidelines to allow dine-in, mentioned full vaccination for everyone getting into a restaurant, bar or hotel –  customers and employees. It also said no air conditioning and allowed only 50% seating capacity.  

                                             Olds Skool diner and cafe

Restaurants and eat-outs, like most other industries, have not had it easy. Business went down even when online orders were made in plenty. Kerala Hotels and Residents Association (KHRA) had gone on protest demanding that dining services be allowed when even schools were declared ready to be reopened next month. Once the first dose of vaccination covered 90% of people in the state, the government finally gave its nod to allow dine-in. While many outlets try to follow the protocol – masks, sanitisers, temperature check etc – several don’t.

“I have gone to three or four restaurants in Kochi and no such protocol was followed in any of them. No one asked for your temperature or your vaccination status. There were also no attempts to restrict seating. Often at night, all the tables would be full and crowded. However, all the staff wear masks, and sanitisers are kept outside the restaurants. But no other checks are done. One or two places also had the air conditioner on,” says Sreekanth, a photographer based in Ernakulam.

Some of the owners seem unaware of the conditions that allow dine-in, such as checking for vaccination or not switching off the air-conditioning. “I didn’t know they said we have to check the vaccination status, but otherwise, everything is neat here,” says the owner of a small eatery in Thiruvananthapuram. There are only three tables in the restaurant and all of them have been kept at a proper distance from each other. However, the air conditioner was left on.

“I had meals from two restaurants in Vazhuthacaud since dine-in was allowed. They didn’t check for vaccination status or even the temperature. But they allowed only two people in every table meant for four, so you could say they followed the 50% capacity rule,” says Vinod Kumar, a personal fitness trainer in Thiruvananthapuram.

The manager at one of these restaurants however said that customers are asked about their vaccination status though they take their word for it and make no checks.

                                Ammu and family dining out

In another high-end restaurant, though the vaccination status was asked of one member of a family, no certificates were demanded. “It was raining so they couldn’t open the outdoor facilities. However, they switched off the air conditioning inside the restaurant and left the windows open. They even gave us special paper covers to keep our masks aside while we were eating. There was ample space between the tables and all the restaurant staff were wearing masks,” says Ammu Sreekumar, a techie, who went to dine out with her family of three.

The KHRA has asked all the restaurants and hotels that come under it to abide by the state's instructions of allowing only 50% seats for dining and making sure that all the staff are fully vaccinated. “However we don’t know how practical it is to see if all the customers are fully vaccinated,” says B Vijayakumar, Thiruvananthapuram general secretary of KHRA.

The restaurants suffered a huge loss when they had to shut down for a second time in April, after the second wave of COVID-19 came to Kerala. “Everyone was just getting stable, after the first lockdown was over and business opened up again. But these past four to five months, locking it all up again, business has been hugely affected. You have to pay your taxes and your electricity and water charges to keep the place running even if you can’t have people dining inside. Many restaurants reduced their working staff but for the few who stayed, you had to pay their salaries. Initially even parcel service was not allowed, except through online orders. And then restaurants were allowed on the spot delivery,” says Vijayakumar

Kings Restaurant at Kuravankonam, a busy joint, has not opened its dining services yet. “Most of the staff was sent away when the sales went down. Now we need to call them back and slowly begin dining services again,” says an employee.

Even as dining services opened, all restaurants are not getting the kind of rush that they used to witness once upon a time. Paul’s Creamery, an ice-cream café near Nanthancode in Thiruvananthapuram, has no customers dining at noon, though they get plenty of online orders. “We have put out only half our seating capacity when we opened now. We check for temperature and note down names and numbers of those who come in. We do ask for their vaccination details and they show us the certificates on their phones, but we can’t do more than that to verify it. However, few customers have shown up since we began dining service,” says Akhil, manager.

                                         Paul's Creamery, empty on a weekday

When Kochi-based writer Fatima went to dine out with her elderly aunts, she chose Haji Ali in Panampilly Nagar, mainly because there was no one else there at the time. Gautham, another Kochi resident from Palluruthy, said he too didn’t observe a crowd in three or four restaurants that he went to dine at.

“People are taking their time to get used to it. Four days after dining services started, it is only gradually picking up. It is mostly youngsters who are ready to dine out, older people are being more careful and taking it slow,” says Vijayakumar.

In Ovenly, a bakery and dine-in in Vazhuthacaud, all the alternate tables are occupied by young people on a Tuesday afternoon. “They have very few options to hang out otherwise – cinemas are still closed, parks are just opening. I can take in 30 people at a time here, skipping one table between every two. If more than four people come as a group, we provide a separate space in the middle of the hall, away from others,” says Hema Edwin, the owner.

All her staff got vaccinated much earlier when restaurant workers were counted among frontline workers and allowed early vaccinations. “We have taken other precautions such as using disposable plates and spoons, setting sanitised cutlery covered in tissue, switching to disposable tumblers, keeping more dustbins around, and sanitising everyone who walks in, taking down their contact details and so on. We have all our online delivery happening through a separate takeaway counter.”

Hema says that business had suffered a lot even when there were a lot of online orders coming during the lockdown, since 30% of the profits went to the delivery agencies. Only direct orders or dine-in could bring them better profits.

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