Greece’s retail sector reopens again amidst COVID-19 lockdown with mixed feelings

Retail shops across Greece, except three regions with heavy epidemiological load, reopened their doors to customers on Monday, after almost three months of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

Shop owners in Athens had mixed feelings of optimism and pessimism towards the reopening of the business, as the quarantine continues and the number of infections remains high.

The image was familiar as they once reopened for business during a few weeks before the Christmas and New Year holidays in 2020. In the spring of 2020, they remained shut for several weeks during the first lockdown.

Officials greenlighted last week the easing of a few restrictions to relieve lockdown fatigue and to restart the economy. But the pedestrian streets and stores in the city center were still rather empty on Monday, as visits to retail shops are only allowed by appointment to avoid gatherings in closed spaces.

People were allowed a three-hour window to leave home, make the purchases and return, while just one shopping trip per day is permitted.

“This is not what we wanted, but it is a start, and we want to send a message of optimism that after such a long time in quarantine with businesses closed, there is a glimmer of optimism,” Athens Chamber of Tradesmen President Ioannis Chatzitheodosiou told media, as a group of officials visited a popular commercial street near the parliament building.

George Kavvathas, president of the Panhellenic Federation of Restaurant and Related Professions, did not share the optimism, as the catering sector remains closed. The government said that it would most likely open after the Greek Christian Orthodox Easter which falls on May 2 this year.

“The most important for catering (sector) is that it cannot operate with one step forward, two steps back… Otherwise, the sector faces collapse. Today, 50 percent of catering businesses have zero cash flow,” Kavvathas said. According to a recent survey carried out for the chamber, 43 percent of restaurant and cafe owners mull over a permanent padlock.

The government has allocated billions of euros since last year to support businesses, employees, self-employed and the jobless, as the economy loses about 1.4 billion euros (1.65 billion U.S. dollars) per month during lockdown, according to the Finance Ministry’s estimates.

Nikos Papathanasiou, Development and Investments Deputy Minister, said on Monday that the state will support entrepreneurism and employment as long as the crisis continues. He voiced confidence that soon the image will look much brighter.

“We believe that soon, thanks to vaccinations, self-testing, rapid tests and the improved weather conditions, we will be able to proceed to the restart of other sectors of the economy as well,” he said.

“You all stay strong, be cautious, and I am certain that we will soon exit this tunnel,” Giorgos Patoulis, regional governor of Attica, added.

However, standing a few meters further, representatives of entrepreneurs said that the relief measures were not enough to cover the huge needs.

Eirini Spirilioti owns a small family business in the center of Athens. They mainly sell jewelry and faux bijoux. For the reopening this spring they added handmade candles for Easter on shelf.

“People show interest, they want to exit their homes and buy something for Easter. We hope that we will not close again. We are trying to observe all measures imposed, and I think people will be careful also so that the retail sector remains open,” she told Xinhua.

In order to stay afloat she had to suspend the employment contract of her sole employee. Until the family business returns to full operation, the state gives an allowance and covers contributions to social insurance funds for all employees with employment contracts suspended due to the lockdown.

Marios Mais, owner of an apparel store nearby, is not optimistic.

“With restrictions on movement across the city center, the number of cases high and the current psychology of consumers, we cannot be optimistic when a sector is reopening under such circumstances. Businesses need, let’s say, social cohesion to operate normally, and we don’t have it,” he told Xinhua.

“We are opening today, keeping in mind that we will most likely close again,” he said.

Mais had two employees before the lockdown. Now there is only one left who is also on a suspended employment contract.

On Monday authorities registered 1,866 new coronavirus infections and 73 deaths in the last 24 hours.

More than 1.8 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country. Over 650,000 people have received both doses, according to the latest official figures released on Sunday.