As the coronavirus outbreak wreaks havoc on economies worldwide, small businesses and the self-employed have been some of the most adversely affected by the economic ramifications.

Small-business owners from a diverse range of fields in Israel’s capital have largely reported that their primary challenge during this period, which they feel now more than ever before, is planning strategically given the uncertainty about the future.

Last month, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Mayor of Jerusalem Moshe Lion spoke to small-business owners and visited a new center in Jerusalem’s First Station set up by the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Jerusalem Development Authority to aid business owners that have suffered during the coronavirus outbreak.

“The country must come to the aid of small businesses. It is not just its moral obligation, it is also the key to the recovery of the economy as a whole,” said the president. “Saving small businesses is one of the most pressing issues on its agenda.”

As a former accountant, the Jerusalem mayor expressed his understanding of what businesses are going through. “The Jerusalem Municipality will allow tables and chairs to be put out on sidewalks without additional charges will pedestrianize streets and will fund cultural activities to draw audiences,” he promised. “I see business owners like my own children.”

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Credit: GPO.

In their conversation, business owners told the president and the mayor of their daily difficulties at the moment. They reported losing clients and sleep, and some reported receiving no grants or loans—only “chaos,” despite newspaper headlines and government promises.

While some reported learning important lessons from this period, and knowledge gained, most were overcome with uncertainty about the future.

‘We don’t know what will happen in the end’

Luis Cruz, owner of the family-owned restaurant Taco Luis, told JNS of being “very sad” when he saw bare streets—once bustling with young people and students—near his restaurant in the city center. “We haven’t received anything from the government, though they said they would support us … . Now we are just waiting, and trying to survive because we don’t want to close.”

After being open for just two years, Cruz said, the business was “amazing and profitable.” Now, he reported, “we feel like we need to start over again.” As he and his wife, Leah, focus on their newly launched delivery service and enjoy some quiet family time, they related “just waiting” for groups and students to return.

Whether the business will be able return to profitability, Cruz answered simply: “We don’t know yet.”

Noam Rizi, an owner of the Adom restaurant chain, said “City Hall has a million dollars of intentions, but our situation is extreme. So far, I have received 1,000 NIS [$290]. No grants and no loans. Our suppliers continue to ask for their money, and we have no way of paying them because the money has stopped.”

He continued, saying “the suppliers have been waiting for two months. We can’t even mortgage assets to pay them because that also takes time. And all this comes before I find any money to buy groceries. I have colleagues with tears in their eyes. We give money to each other from the nothing we have, and it now doesn’t matter when we open.

“Give us an option to get through the crisis. I owe 50,000 NIS [$14,500] management fees for the premises here for the last two months. How? Where from? I understand everyone, but there is a difference between the newspaper headlines promising grants and the chaos in reality.”

Uri Navon, an owner of the Machneyuda group, said “we are people who know how to reinvent ourselves. We have always stayed open. Rockets, suicide bombers—we always came in the morning and opened the doors. We are at the end of the supply chain, but there are many people around who rely on us at the end of the day. Overseas, our restaurants immediately got government aid, and that gave us breathing room and a sense that there is something to come back to, that we will be able to recover.”

He insisted that “we aren’t asking for favors. We were closed by order. We were told ‘you cannot open your business,’ but all the payments are mounting up. We have all put in requests for loans and grants, and we are doing all we can with the bureaucratic process, but we don’t know what will happen in the end.”

‘We will be ready and waiting when tourism comes back’

Eiran Gordon, a tour guide who primarily leads Taglit Birthright groups, told JNS that in the face of no incoming tourism, he has found online speaking gigs with Diaspora communities, though those have been “few and far between,” as the field is oversaturated with guides looking for work.

Despite acknowledging that working in informal education on screen has a different dynamic, he has found ample opportunities for personal enrichment from Israel’s tourism union and ministry, organizations and museums, Taglit and other tour guides.

Tour guide Eiran Gordon with a group from Taglit Birthright before the pandemic. Credit: Courtesy.

As an employee of Taglit, he said, it was relatively easy to receive governmental support, and his overhead is low. Nevertheless, he and his peers recognize that tour guides will be among the last to return to work. “I have no idea how my business will change, and I am thinking of other ways of creating and distributing content. While there is a feeling of frustration, there is also a positive feeling about the future, and we are preparing ourselves to be as best guides we can be.

“We will be ready and waiting when tourism comes back,” he said.

Even from afar, Gordon urged others to use them.

“We are a resource that is at the edge of your fingertips. We are not only necessary if you’re visiting a particular site; we are educators with methodology, content and insights that we’d like to share,” he explained. “If there is a theme in Israeli and Jewish history you’d like to explore, be in touch with us.”

Tour guide Gadi Dahan shared the concerns felt by his colleagues. “I don’t sleep at night. Our profession is in jeopardy. Our tourists have gotten older in recent years, and I am very worried that they won’t come. And everything stopped all at once, and people have nothing to eat.”

Esther Sa’ad, a tour guide for Israelis in Hebrew, said she had found some advantages in the coronavirus outbreak. “I posted my tours on Facebook. I take fewer people because of the restrictions, but we go out all the time. The municipality organized tours for Yom Yerushalayim [Jerusalem Day] and even though we make less, we are working and it’s wonderful. My business has no expenses, and if I go out to work, I earn.”

Lily Merhav Zeltzer, a Pilates teacher and studio owner, said, “I lost 60 percent of my clients, and we have gone back to work under restrictions that are not implementable. I was anxious about the day when I would have to fire employees, the day when I couldn’t make rent.”

Pilates instructor Katie Silver says 80 percent of her students have not returned since reopening. Credit: Inspire Studio.

Working in the same field, Katie Silver said “before opening again, I made a fraction of what I normally make—maybe 10 percent. Even now, 80 percent of my students haven’t come back. I have grown my business for the past eight years, and now it feels like I went back four years.”

After having to temporarily close her Pilates studio in the Rechavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, Silver opted for teaching online (“not ideal” in this field, she said) and selling sports equipment to make ends meet.

She told JNS that the government has supported her and her employees “quite significantly.”

And she remained optimistic about her the future of her profession, saying that “hopefully, it will return, and everyone will come back.”


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