By Johannes L. Chua

renzo1 - Lessors, now is the time for compassion

“Non-essential services or businesses.” That was the classification given to spas, parlors, gyms, entertainment venues, clubs, karaoke joints, restobars, sports bars, among others. Yes, you don’t need to go to these places to “survive” the crisis as you can temporarily wear your hair long, exercise at home, or just do Zoom parties and e-numan. But when everything is all right and you can gather friends once more, these places may not be around to welcome you back.

All businesses, except those in the pharmaceutical, canned goods, or logistics industries, will feel the loss in the coming days. But for non-essential businesses, they would feel it more, as the crisis hits them harder. The almost three-month zero income for them was a death sentence as most are SMEs, or small and medium-sized enterprises.

As an SME, a business may not have that much capital (it relies on sales to pay for salaries, rent, and other expenses), they hire workers numbering to as low as five but not more than 50 (and a lot rely on service charges and tips from customers), and all of them need to fill the maximum capacity of their space to earn (the more customers, the better). When the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) announced that it was now allowing these businesses to open at a “50 percent capacity,” it was a bitter pill to swallow. Though business owners know that this is for the general good in order to fight the spread of Covid-19, for others, it was “time to go.”

The only way to survive is to get a “little help” from lessors—waiving of rental fee during the ECQ, discount of succeeding rental payment, staggered payments, ex-deals, etc. In short, compassion in this great crisis.

“We finally decided to close because it will be very hard to operate a restobar at half the capacity while paying our rent in full,” says Renz Palermo, owner of Renzo Restobar in San Juan. One of his problems, Renz says, is that the building owner demanded payment for the three-month ECQ period when the business was closed.

“I relented and even paid the three months when we had zero sales. I requested, however, for a discount for the succeeding rental payments just to keep us afloat in this crisis, but the lessor wouldn’t negotiate and just insisted she was strictly following the contract,” he says.

Renz was very disheartened with the turnout of events. The bar just opened last September and he spent almost a million renovating the space, putting up a bar area, kitchen space, and even installing new wood tiles. It was built with care. Now, he has to “dismantle” everything.

“It is not only the loss of capital, but the loss of livelihood of eight people who are breadwinners of their families,” Renz says. One of his employees has a wife who is about to give birth. “They have kids, they have families to feed… all of them are relying on this business to open. Now, it would be hard for them to find work in this crisis.”

Renz, together with so many SME owners, lamented the fact that government was sending “mixed signals.” Early on, the President announced some directives on rent amnesty, with the DTI suggesting that rent payments during the ECQ can be paid in six staggered tranches. A recent DTI statement, however, didn’t mention that and said that rent payments still had to be settled immediately, even if a business didn’t operate during the ECQ. It was confusing. And a lot of SMEs are very disappointed.

Puro salita lang! (It was all talk!)” says Eric, who didn’t reveal his surname as he is still in a dispute with his lessor. Eric owns a sports bar in Quezon City, with four billiard tables, drinking area, and videoke space. Closed since March 16, all things inside have been gathering dust.

“The government is all talk. There was no law or executive order requiring lessors to give amnesty to their tenants,” Eric says. “The words the government used were ‘with the generosity,’ ‘with the kindness,’ ‘ upon the discretion’ of the lessors. It means, the government is hands-off with this issue. It now depends on the lessor to provide any leniency. That ‘flip-flopping’ by the government is what my landlord is using to demand rent payment, even though we were closed during the ECQ.”

Then you would realize how essential these ‘non-essentials’ are to your sanity. Yes, life goes on. But the world is bleaker, colder, and a lot less loving.

Like the workers of Renz, Eric’s 10 employees didn’t receive any ayuda from DOLE, even though he passed all requirements. His savings were already depleted with him trying to support his employees, who are like family members to him.

“That is what big businesses, factories, or these malls don’t understand. For SMEs, our workers are like our family since we are a small unit,” Eric says. “It will be very painful for me to just leave them behind.”

This was also the sentiment of Andrew de Real, one of the pioneers of comedy bars in the country. In a television interview, he says that the workers at comedy bars are “hurting, having anxiety, or depressed.” Aside from not knowing “if there is any future for them,” there is no help from the government. In fact, they are ones supporting each other, with some standup comedians doing online shows, selling food and snacks, or doing deliveries.

K-La Velarde Delavin, a stand-up comedian, bewails the fact that entertainers were considered “non-essentials” during the pandemic. “Pero kapag eleksyon, piyesta, birthday ni kapitan o mayor kilala niyo kami, with picture-taking pa (But during elections, fiestas, the barangay captain’s or the mayor’s birthday, you know us, and even have your photos with us). We are (not demanding special treatment), but asking for assistance like what you give other industries.”

An estimate reveals there are over a million workers in the leisure and entertainment industries, and, if you add the workers of bars, spas, parlors, and gyms, it may be between 10 to 15 million.

It was not only NCR-based businesses that were affected by the ECQ, restobars from as far as Subic, Cebu, GenSan were also shutting their doors permanently.

“We have no income at all. The businesses and bars around us are all closing,” says Mark Paragas, a bar owner in Subic. He was also required to pay the lease during the ECQ months. With depleted revolving capital, the prospects are bleak too as he doesn’t feel tourists will be coming any time soon. He has no choice but to leave his 13 workers jobless.

“I really want to open once this crisis clears up since my workers need a livelihood. But we also need leniency on rent payments. If this can be waived temporarily or at least a law requires lessors to offer a discount, then we can survive. If not, it’s better to close,” says Mark. “Others advised me to take a loan, but it will only put us in a worse situation.”

Business experts have suggested that SMEs “innovate” or “digitalize” in order to survive, for example, for a restobar to offer deliveries and takeouts. This may be possible, Renz says, but with a high rent expense, “it would just be a futile endeavor.”

“A restobar earns from events and sales of beer, cocktails, and liquor. Similar to a parlor, if it is just offering haircut services, it will operate at a loss,” Renz says. “The best way is for lessors to think about granting a discount, since we can only accept half the number of customers we usually have. When things go back to normal, we can resume paying the full rent.”

For now, bar owners in the Philippines and all over the world, are shutting down their businesses or thinking about other ways to earn. Ditto also with spas, gyms, and comedy bars. With the loss of these places, which have become the point of convergence in a community, familial bonds are broken.

When you want to relax, order your favorite pulutan, belt out your hugot song, meet your barkada for billiards, laugh at a comedian’s jokes, or make yourself feel pampered, there may be no places to go, no one to talk to with a beer in hand, or no fun memories to create. Then you would realize how essential these “non-essentials” are to your sanity. Yes, life goes on. But the world is bleaker, colder, and a lot less loving.

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