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Businesses hang on for dear life on COVID-19 rollercoaster

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In a cruel twist of fate, the businesses that were to benefit most over the festive season have now had to bear the brunt of COVID-19 restrictions in light of the new Omicron variant. Just as travel, hospitality, and theatre were opening up to pre-pandemic levels, they faced a fourth wave and restrictions that are taking them back to square one. Many in the South African Jewish community have been affected, but they vow to survive, overcome, adapt, and thrive into the New Year.

“When the United Kingdom initially took us off the red list, it seemed as though half of South Africa wanted to travel in December,” says Andrea Bonalumi of Visa Box, a travel visa consultancy which services South African outbound travellers. “We were inundated with enquiries not just for the United Kingdom, but all European Union countries. So we went from zero to 1 000 overnight. We were working flat out!”

Because of this workload increase, “I hired back an employee whom I had previously retrenched. I also signed a lease agreement for 2022 so that we could all get back into an office, assuming the run would continue.”

So, when the world slammed its doors on South Africa, it was a nightmare come true. “Now, I sit with these commitments I’m not sure I’ll be able to honour and even worse, the unknown. When will this end, will it ever end, why did they react in such a way?” she asks. “Some of my clients haven’t seen their family for more than two years. Some were going to meet grandchildren for the first time. Some had already spent tens of thousands [sometimes hundreds of thousands] of rands on a trip they will never enjoy. It’s just terribly sad – and just before Christmas. I have a client who needs to go to Australia to attend a Barmitzvah. Will that ever happen?

“The industry as a whole is writhing, and our industry is massive. Not only outbound, but what about our tourism? It’s a mess to say the least, but I just hope and pray that it will end as quickly as it started. We will survive. I have to survive. It’s my livelihood as well as that of my staff.”

Fiona Sacks, a freelance tour guide and event organiser in the Western Cape, says, “I was due to have a bumper December. I had clients coming from Egypt and from Israel on a cruise. I had work for a company in Cape Town for its year-end function which involved a tour and its overseas team joining. Needless to say, within about a day and a half, everything was cancelled and the end-of-year function was postponed until next year. It felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. And then, of course, the knock-on effect was felt across the whole industry.”

Moving forward, “I’m seeing a trickle of new enquiries coming in so I’m cautiously optimistic that more work will come, and I will prevail,” she says.

For Theatre on the Square owner Daphne Kuhn, the curveball is just one more challenge in the pandemic rollercoaster ride of those in the live entertainment industry. After a tough 20 months, “We finally opened about six weeks ago,” she says. “There was no ‘grand opening’, and respecting the virus protocols, we’ve had to let out and rent the theatre for film shoots and other small functions. We had a number of concerts and we were often packed with people filling the 50% capacity, all of whom had to be vaccinated. This ‘soft opening’ also allowed for a number of our classical and jazz concerts, but these, sadly, were curtailed over the past few days. We cancelled the last three classical concerts this week as it wasn’t safe to hold gatherings, and some of the artists were ill.

“We lost out on our marketing costs, publicity, printed programmes, as well as technical salaries of our employees, as there could be no income derived from ticket sales. The musicians lost their fees, as all income normally goes directly to the artists for our concerts where we promote musicians.”

There have been a few saving graces. “The two big student showcases that were cancelled have been postponed for the New Year, so we didn’t lose their fee, as they hired the theatre in this case,” says Kuhn. “It had an impact on our technical employees, whose fees I had to pay. Thankfully, everything has been postponed and rescheduled for the New Year when we hope it will be safer to open again. We have rent relief at the moment until the New Year, but utilities and all regular running costs continue – with no income! The only consolation is that nowadays, we normally close the theatre for three weeks over the festive season as Johannesburg becomes very quiet.”

A number of concerts have been rescheduled from late January, and play productions have been scheduled from February 2022, if all is well,” she says. “We remain positive and absolutely determined that in the second quarter of 2022, we will reopen formally with a series of intriguing stage productions that will entice audiences and get them back to savour the joy of live entertainment.”

For DJ and performer Danielle Bitton, December 2021 was the summer season she had been waiting for. Along with the impact of the pandemic on the entertainment industry, she has spent the past two years battling and recovering from breast cancer. But she was finally going to be back behind the mic and the decks, where she belonged. That is, until the new variant took away those hopes.

“To say the past two years have been tough for us artists would be an understatement. Just when we thought there might be some semblance of normality and a December summer season, who decides to show up? Mr Omicron, making a grand entrance riding in on the fourth wave!” she quips.

“Since the announcement of this variant, some of my gigs have been cancelled as people are afraid of being out again. It’s not just musicians who are suffering – the film industry is too. I was fortunate enough to book a commercial just before the announcement of the new variant, but friends who had international jobs lined up have all had them cancelled. This is a huge loss for the entertainment industry.”

Ever the optimist, Bitton says the new variant won’t get her down – physically or literally. “I recently took Mr Omicron home with me from an outdoor party, even though I’m double vaxxed with Pfizer. Was the hype worth it? Not really. I had a postnasal drip and a cough. I felt like I had a cold for two days, and then I felt fine. My only hope is that we don’t get more restrictions. Us artists need this season to survive next year! I pray with this new milder variant that COVID-19 is on its way out!”

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