Covid-19 officially arrived in Georgia on February 26 with a Georgian man who had traveled home overland from Iran. That and international news coverage provoked a mad rush on face masks and an initial panic raid at several supermarkets. The government warned us to stop kissing when we greet each other and extended the springtime school holiday by a week.
By March 6, a dozen Georgians had contracted the virus and the global death toll was in the thousands; we spent that evening with a few dozen people around a big table at Sulico Wine Bar tasting chacha, laughing and clinking our shot glasses to its antiseptic powers.
Later that night, we were around another table taking turns ripping chunks off a fresh loaf of bread, reaching into a bamboo basket to pull out steaming khinkali with our fingers, and snatching glistening slices of pork belly from a platter with our forks. Nothing could be more of a welcome mat to viruses than the Georgian style of eating. (The word for “friend” is megobari, whose root is gobi, or bowl. Thus, a friend is one we share a bowl with.) Each bite zinged with a flood of toe-curling sensations, but then we were with chef Tekuna Gachechiladze at her new restaurant, Republic 24. We asked if business had been affected by the coronavirus.
“Last night Beka Gochiashvili [a celebrated jazz pianist] played at the club upstairs. Afterwards, everyone came here. It was two o’clock and the restaurant was completely full,” Tekuna recounted as a waiter delivered our wine.
As the days passed by and several more people became infected, some friends began to excuse themselves from handshakes by jokingly doing leg or booty shakes instead. We saw how the waitstaff at Cafe Stamba, the chic Tbilisi hotel restaurant, sprayed disinfectant above tables before wiping them. While it is not uncommon to see Tbilisians wearing surgical masks during flu season, I wondered, during a weekend away, why someone would be wearing one in the middle of a village an hour from Tbilisi. Things are getting very weird.
The government has stepped up a science-based information campaign, and the President has been urging people to be safe, even going so far as to ride a public bus with a mask on for a photo op. But the Georgian Orthodox Church, which asked the state to “disinfect its churches,” is insisting its flock place all their trust on faith, science be damned.
Ignoring the advice of the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health to alter its communion ritual, the Church will continue its practice of sharing a common spoon dipped in wine. After all, Orthodox believers survived similar “life threatening infections” in the past. Patriarch Ilia II put everything down to “God’s will” and reassured everyone by noting his prophetic dream of a fiery man on a horse, and a child who spit in the dirt and drew a cross his forehead with the mud. A sign the virus would be conquered if ever there was one. Apparently, no one sees the irony of sharing a spoon of wine with scores of people on a Sunday and wearing a mask for protection the rest of the week.
On March 11, I led my first market walk since Covid-19 made global headlines. The Deserter’s Bazaar was business as usual. There were no surgical masks, but there was chacha. Vendors asked us how “corona” was in our countries and offered us drinks. Down in the raffish wine section, one local market-goer with shaky hands spoke to us in Spanish for some reason and invited us for a tipple. Then it was off to our next stop for khinkali.
Klikes has been open about a year. It is located in the Mtatsminda neighborhood, up behind the parliament building. It’s a cool little raw red brick-walled place with a young, friendly staff that would probably pick up a people’s choice award for khinkali, if such a thing existed. We generally show up in the middle of the lunch rush, but this day the place was empty. Two waiters were playing chess on a small board at the bar as two waitresses watched.
“What is this?” I asked. “Is this because of the coronavirus?” Everyone shrugged. Upon further questioning a server told me that this is also the spring break holiday, which had just been extended until April because of the virus. Many people were in the villages. But it could also be deserted because of the virus – nobody knows.
After gobbling down richly divine nadugi (ricotta-like curd) dumplings and luscious kalakuri (ground pork, beef and fresh herbs) we paid up and walked to Vino Underground for a wine tasting. Between sips of a lovely rkatsiteli, I was talking up the Zero Compromise and the New Wine festivals held annually on the first weekend of May. “Better than Christmas,” I boasted. “You really have to come!”
Then Tornike, our wine tender, interrupted us with the horrific news that the festivals have been canceled due to the virus. The blow knocked the wind out of me. As the fog lifted, my grief morphed to approbation, realizing how serious some people in Georgia were taking the pandemic.
After wine, we headed to Salobie Bia for dinner. Ezo, our regular stop, had reduced its working days to the weekends due to the slow winter season (and yesterday closed outright until the virus storm passes). The only change here was a new server. Most of the tables were occupied, and the food was as gorgeous as ever.
As I first sat down to write this, on Friday, March 13, there are 25 reported cases and zero deaths. Masks are hard to find but there is plenty of toilet paper in the shops – many offering it at discounted prices. As far as priorities go, bathroom tissue rates low on the list. This is a country accustomed to using pages of old Soviet era textbooks nailed to the walls of outhouses.
The main panic is within the country’s tourism sector, which was the fastest growing segment of the economy, providing 7.6 percent of the total GDP in 2018, bringing in around US$3.2 million. The Georgian Federation of Hotels and Restaurants reports an 80-90 percent cancelation of hotel reservations in March and April. Many businesses face bankruptcy, as they will not be able to repay their loans if the crisis continues. So far, ten hotels have closed. Georgian Economy Minister Natia Turnava expects the tourism sector will lose close to US$11 million a month because of travel bans and the devaluation of the lari, the national currency. While the government has offered a plan to help mitigate the economic destruction to businesses in the sector, it is too early to see the degree to which the measures will help small businesses.
I have a blues band and wondered if we should cancel our weekly Sunday gig at Sulico. On one hand, I thought it would be the wise thing to do, while on the other, I thought of my band members and how badly they need each gig. Three hours before show time, we got the call – temporarily laid off. Last weekend we were here joking about coronavirus; the karma could be worse.
On Monday, March 16, the number is up to 33. The government issued a decree denying entry to all foreigners for two weeks starting Wednesday and ski resorts are closing. Cafés, restaurants and bars have been asked to restrict direct service and use take-out services instead.
I thought I’d take a look at how the hypermarkets are doing – they had been assaulted all weekend, and it appeared to still be happening. I saw a full parking lot and more people entering than exiting. I went to the Deserter’s Bazaar for provisions and it was cool and mellow, along with the smaller markets around town I visited. On the way home I stopped by Chacha Corner. Vato was there alone. He put on his mask when I entered. His business has been slashed since there are no tourists, and like toilet paper, artisan chacha is no one’s priority. Nevertheless, he is going to stay open for the duration as a matter of principle.
“You just have to be careful,” he said, pulling a bottle from behind the bar. “This chacha is 80 percent (160 proof). I wash my hands with it every fifteen minutes.” He poured a hefty shot into my hands and I rubbed it in. “Everything here is disinfected with it,” he added.
I had thought about how in the rest of the world Covid-19 is a pandemic, but here in Georgia it is just another invader, paling in comparison to a long list that includes Romans, Arabs, the Golden Horde, Persians, Ottomans, Soviets and most recently, Russians. Adversity is nothing new. This is why I wasn’t surprised when Vato said, “I think in the end, it won’t be so bad. We survived Chernobyl and civil war in the 1990s.” The next shot he poured in a glass, but from a different bottle.
Editor’s note: With the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis rapidly and profoundly impacting many of the cities we work in, we’ve asked some of our correspondents to file dispatches detailing how they and the places they live in are coping with this new reality. Our third report is from Tbilisi; recently the Georgian government announced that it would be denying entry to all foreigners for two weeks starting Wednesday, March 18.
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