Shanghai businesses struggle to get back on their feet after Covid-19 lockdown

Office workers entering the Shanghai World Financial Center on June 1, 2022. - Reuters

SHANGHAI (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): Weeks after emerging from a two-month lockdown, Shanghai's small and medium businesses have a lot of catching up to do.

But some are still wary about ordering workers back to the office, fearing that the emergence of a Covid-19 cluster would result in lengthy quarantines and more business disruptions.

Others are turning to professionals to organise workshops in a bid to assuage anxieties of going back to work.

Early indicators point to gross domestic product numbers being lacklustre. Coupled with the brain drain in the city and a sluggish consumer economy, the scars of Covid-19 in Shanghai might linger long after the virus is gone.

Office administrator Casey Zhou is worried about returning to the office. After work-from-home arrangements for nearly three months, the import-export firm she works for is trying to get employees back to the office.

"I've been having a lot of nightmares about this because, what if I catch the virus on the way to work, or worse, if there's a case in the office?" the 23-year-old said.

"I cannot go back into lockdown, or cause my family and neighbours to get shut in again, it's not fair."

Counsellors like Sophia Wu say they have seen an uptick in a request for workshops, especially by smaller firms, to help workers deal with the stress.

"It's not just employees who are afraid, business owners and managers too. They are the ones who will be held responsible for an outbreak, and it's additional cost on the company, which may be forced to suspend operations yet again for another period," she told The Straits Times.

Her firm, Sunpo Corporate Services, usually runs corporate team building and life coaching workshops. But since the lockdown, about a dozen clients have engaged its individual and team counselling services.

Meanwhile, business chambers are calling for more support measures for their members and for policy to be more evenly enforced.

In a survey of 133 members released last month by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai (AmCham Shanghai), whose members include Coca-Cola, PayPal and General Mills, 76 per cent of respondents cited tax breaks as the most practical support measure.

For members who run factories where a "closed loop" can be enforced, essentially meaning workers stay in their own ecosystem and away from the public, they were allowed to resume operations as soon as late April and early May.

"But for companies that are in service and consumer-facing industries, there are much more stringent measures, and some have also faced supply chain issues," said AmCham Shanghai president Eric Zheng in an interview with ST.

"Some had employees who simply couldn't get to work, while others were met with the uneven implementation of rules," he said.

While restaurants were allowed to reopen for delivery or takeaway service from June 1, some tried to skirt a dine-in ban by placing furniture outdoors so customers could have their food "to go" but still have a place to sit.

The authorities eventually caught on, and on a recent Saturday evening, two popular bars by the Suzhou Creek were forced to shut by police after patrons were found sitting on restaurant furniture outdoors.

All restaurants in the district had to remove outdoor seating last week.

But desperate for business beyond delivery, some have continued taking risks, such as having customers use side entrances or even keeping the lights off.

"We have no choice because while we were allowed to pay workers less during the lockdown, we're still being taxed based on their full salaries," said a foreign restaurant operator who asked to remain anonymous.

"Then they suddenly announced reopening on June 1, and all the reliefs have gone but we're still not allowed to fully open. It's killing us."

The city government announced on Sunday that dining in will be allowed from Wednesday (June 29), four weeks after the reopening.

But in a city known for its destination dining, the lockdown has taken its toll. China's top cocktail bar Sober Company announced last week that it would shut its flagship bar.

"In February, Sober had just celebrated our fifth anniversary... After April, everything was forced to change, and looking back, we can only sigh," the bar wrote on messaging app WeChat. "That we have to say goodbye so hastily is regretful."

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China , Shanghai , business , covid-19 , recovery


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