The officials from the Ministry of Health came late in the evening on a Friday night and entered Tbilisi’s popular gastro-entertainment complexes Fabrika and Ghvinis Karkhana-Wine Factory #1. They knew there would be a lot of people here celebrating life again after two and a half months in lockdown. They also understood that even with tables spaced two meters apart, as required, it is difficult to control social distancing after people have had a few drinks. For authorities looking to tally up some fines, it was like shooting ducks in a wine barrel.
A total of 16 establishments were fined 10,000 lari ($3,273) in what restaurant owners have described as “raids” two weekends ago for violating Covid-19 regulations. Among the six places at Ghvinis Karkhana that were penalized was Number 8 BBQ House for not having a list of employee temperatures and violating social distancing rules.
“They came around 11 [p.m.] and at first were very nice. Then they turned their cameras on and became really aggressive, treating us as if we were terrorists,” recalls Giorgi Macharashvili, the co-owner of Number 8, who takes responsibility for not maintaining a daily list of his employee’s temperatures but feels the social distancing infraction is totally unfair.
“Our tables are properly spaced with six seats per table. If some guy gets up from one table and walks to another to say hi to his friends, our staff can’t always immediately run over and ask the guy to get back to his table,” Giorgi argues.
One need not look hard to see people all over the city violating social distancing rules. It is not just people pulling down masks to greet friends with cheek kisses and crowding you in shop lines – city buses are packing people in, too. Since the government lifted the state of emergency in May and opened businesses in June, many assume the pandemic has been conquered. Although Georgia has been lucky, cases are still tallying up. As of June 22, 11 new Covid-19 cases were reported, increasing the number of total confirmed cases to 908, according to the StopCov.ge website.
Restaurants and bars were among the hardest hit businesses during the lockdown. Reopening after two months of quarantine under current conditions is a crapshoot with loaded dice. Sulico Wine Bar reports a 60 percent loss of its seating capabilities and will be walking a book-balancing tightrope until life returns to something that can be considered “normal.”
“Without tourists, not a lot of restaurants will survive,” says Tekuna Gachechiladze, whose taqueria, Teko’s Takos, was fined for violating social distancing rules. She had hoped the Ministry of Health would have worked more closely with businesses to help them adhere to new regulations instead of suddenly imposing tyrannical fines that could impend the end for some of these struggling enterprises.
If the government wants to help small businesses restart after the lockdown during an economic downturn, why slap them with a fine that could bankrupt them?
Ilja’s Hotel, which hasn’t had a guest in months, opened their kitchen for delivery during quarantine and had made what they believed were all the necessary precautions to open for seated guests. But the news of the health raids and 10,000 lari fines for the smallest infractions compelled owner Ilja Anna-Karin Stenberg to shut her door.
“Before we opened our café last week we called the Ministry of Health and asked them to come and check that everything was in order. We haven’t heard back from them since,” Ilja says.
Beka Peradze, head of the inspection department at the Ministry of Health says officials held “around five meetings” with restaurant representatives, the National Tourism Administration and the Business Ombudsman. Businesses were also verbally warned to follow the rules. “I assure you that fines were used where needed,” he noted by email.
No one denies they broke a rule, but does the punishment fit the crime? Tamar Makhaldiani, co-owner of Tone in the Fabrika complex, says her restaurant reached out to the Ministry of Health three times to come check if they had met the criteria for reopening and claims each request was ignored. Although indoor seating is permitted by law, Tone chose to use only their outdoor seating and managed to control social distancing – even at midnight when she says the authorities arrived. “We were fined 10,000 lari for not having two stickers: on the door informing people about the dezobarier [disinfecting doormat], and on the dishwasher indicating the required water temperature,” she says. Fabrika tenants Cafe Moulin Electrique and game club Tsibakha also received sticker fines.
Marika Kvirkvelidze, Brand and Marketing Manager of Fabrika, which passed inspection, says everyone – including the targeted businesses – understands the importance of following the regulations. However, she does not understand the government’s logic in imposing such strict fines. If the government wants to help small businesses restart after the lockdown during an economic downturn, why slap them with a fine that could bankrupt them?
“Giving fines to small businesses on their first visit, not taking into account the possibility of a warning and giving them logical time to meet all the regulations, we do not see it to be fair in terms of both business support and the prevention of spreading the virus,” she states.
Almost all of the fined businesses intend to fight their cases in court.
“We had everything, masks, disinfectants, thermometers. We tried our best to follow the law. We reduced our seating to four tables for six people,” Giorgi Macharashvili explains in a jittery voice. “It will take five months to make 10,000 lari like this. I don’t know how we are going to do it.”