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KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 25 — Shopkeepers in Malaysia’s capital city are counting down the days to when the current movement control order (MCO) will finally be lifted, despite the newest relaxation of restrictions on businesses.
Sure, there has been an increase in foot traffic inside the sprawling glass, steel, and concrete malls spread out across the cosmopolis since more than two people were allowed to eat at a table inside restaurants or share a car. But by and large, these upticks have not quite made the cash registers sing.
“Business has improved a bit now that more people, including families, are able to sit together but for our establishment here, foreigners or even travelling businessmen are a must otherwise we cannot make money to service our rentals,” said Mohammad Jahid, who manages O’Galito, a restaurant serving Mediterranean cuisine located inside the upscale Pavilion KL shopping mall on Jalan Bukit Bintang.
It was lunch hour on a working day when Malay Mail visited with just days left till March 4, when the current MCO would (hopefully) expire.
While the seating capacity at the various restaurants nestled between the mall’s outdoor sidewalk and Pavilion Elite were not comparable to pre-MCO 2.0 levels, groups in threes and fours could be seen sharing tables.
“The weekends have good sales, but slow on normal weekdays,” he said, counting Fridays as among the better days in the week.
But weekends were best since January 13 when the MCO was reintroduced in the Klang Valley to cut the Covid-19 surge that had turned the central peninsular Malaysia region into one giant red zone of infections.
Mohammad said the weekend diners who visited the restaurants comprised mostly family and young adults.
“I think people don’t want to stay at home too much,” said another restaurant manager, Kalvinder Gill.
He is hopeful that business will pick up further, even though the restaurant is allowed to open at only 50 per cent of its full capacity due to the one-metre physical distancing rule.
While Malaysia has kicked off the first phase of its national Covid-19 vaccination programme, Kalvinder noted that the daily new cases had not really gone down and was still in the four-digit range, yo-yoing between the 2,000s and 3,000s.
He intimated that there was little restaurateurs could do to entice people to dine out as it was wholly a matter of their personal confidence, and willingness to take the risk.
But Kalvinder said there has been a visible difference in his restaurant’s sales figures, hovering between 10 and 15 per cent. He said the increase in sales was from the increase in dine-in patrons during the weekends, in particular family groups after the government agreed to more than two people seated at a table.
For some of the food and beverage operators at Pavilion KL whose business has been adversely affected by the MCO and government imposed international travel restrictions, any customer is considered good business.
“It's a good thing the government has allowed us to serve more people for dine-in, it's definitely better than before. Hopefully international flights will be made available as well so more travellers can come and dine in, this is the hope of the businesses here,” a service staff at a French-inspired bistro called Cafe de Paris told Malay Mail.
Like other establishments, the staff who declined to be named said they were dependent on foreign tourists, which usually made up large travelling groups to sustain the restaurant’s business.
Several blocks away from Pavilion KL at Berjaya Times Square, business for the restaurants appeared to fare better than other retail outlets. There were noticeably more walk-in customers for the restaurants, even though not all chose to dine-in, opting instead for takeaway.
The two malls lie at the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s Golden Triangle business district, but were ghosts of their former, pre-Covid selves.
Perhaps one of the reasons was the permanent closure of its cinematic multiplex on Berjaya Times Square’s third floor. The shutters in front of the Golden Screen Cinemas boards was a stark reminder of better times before the pandemic swept across the country, forcing the government to impose restrictions on large public gatherings to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Last January, GSC shut down its Berjaya Times Square outlet, citing the extended forced closure by the government which prevented them from earning any revenue from screenings since last year.
Shopkeepers at Central Park @ Berjaya Times Square, a well-known haunt among locals and foreigners shopping for trendy but inexpensive apparel met by Malay Mail said business had not picked up as quickly under MCO 2.0, due to certain restrictions still in place.
They added that retail had been equally reliant on both local and international customers for revenue.
“It's not like before. There is a difference in the number of customers we get. In the past, there were many tourists but now it's rare and they have entirely disappeared.
“Yes we have the local crowds like young people, families during weekends and we are able to make at least RM2,000 on a good day, but it all depends as sometimes we only manage to sell one or two apparel,” one shopkeeper who gave her name as Norhaima Maskito said.
She expressed hope that the national vaccination programme would encourage and instill confidence in the public to shop outside in the near future.
Najiha Idris who works at Oioi, another boutique selling women’s fashion, said business has picked up, but is still slow and was not up to par with the pre-MCO 2.0 crowds when interstate travel was allowed.
Najiha said tourists had been among the biggest spenders before the latest lockdown.
“Sure we have all kinds of locals shopping here during the weekends; old, young, couples, families, even those who have just given birth.
“Usually sales are more encouraging on weekends. But on weekdays, it's hard to get a good sale and we relied on online sales to make up for the shortcomings.
“I can’t exactly say whether it's different from now and then, but there is indeed a miniscule difference,” she told Malay Mail.
The MCO in the Klang Valley initially took effect on January 13 and had been due to expire on January 26, before it was extended twice to February 18 and latest to March 4.
The first shipment of Covid-19 vaccines from US maker Pfizer-BioNTech arrived last Sunday to kickstart the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme on February 24. However, phase one aims to inoculate the health and security forces and ministers. The general Malaysian public will have to wait for the subsequent phases to receive their shots.