Turkey’s small businesses fear for survival during harsh lockdown

Many Istanbul shops already choosing to ignore a nightly curfew in a bid to tackle mounting debts as the toughest lockdown grinds on.

Oktay, right, has sold produce in bazaars for 40 years and says this is the worst year ever [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

Istanbul, Turkey – Small business owners say they may be forced to break the country’s strict lockdown restrictions, which prohibit the sale of alcohol and the opening of “non-essential” shops, as they cannot afford to lose more than two weeks of business.

Ankara is hoping to stifle the spread of COVID with a 17-day lockdown – the strictest to date – that started last Thursday, ahead of the country’s vital tourist season.

The announcement of the snap restrictions came soon after Russia – which accounted for seven million tourists in 2019 – banned flights to Turkey because of a surge in infections in recent weeks.

The interior ministry announced on Tuesday that shops selling electronic goods, clothing, garden supplies, and auto accessories were to remain closed to “prevent crowding”, starting on Friday.

With only chain supermarkets, butcheries, bakeries, greengrocers and dessert shops allowed to trade, the lockdown spells disaster for many independent businesses, which have yet to be given financial support by the government.

Ahead of the lockdown, people enjoyed their last chance to socialise in Moda Beach Park, Kadikoy on April 28 [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

‘They did nothing’

Yildiz, 38, lives above an alcohol shop he runs in Istanbul’s Kadikoy Moda neighbourhood popular with young liberals and students. He says business had been struggling even before coronavirus hit, as Turkey’s economy struggled. The loss of more business because of the pandemic means he will have no choice but to break the new restrictions.

“If I know someone and they come to my apartment, then I will sell to them because otherwise, I won’t make any money. But if you’re a stranger coming here and asking, I would say no,” he said, adding that the fine if caught is 30,000 Turkish lira ($3,600), more than 10 times the minimum monthly wage.

“They [the government] could have helped us with our social security payments or rent. But they did nothing, less than nothing.”

Yildiz said since the start of the pandemic, he has received two support payments – one of 500 lira ($60) and another of 700 lira ($84), but it did not go far in covering the cost of business lost because of curfews and lockdowns.

He and other merchants say their rent, electricity, gas, and other costs have shot up as inflation hit more than 17 percent in April, but their prices have stayed the same as customers are also struggling to make ends meet.

Critics say the alcohol ban is religiously motivated and that alcohol has little to do with the spread of COVID. The ban will be in place for the last stretch of Ramadan and over Eid al-Fitr, although many are unclear whether the restriction is legally binding.

A source at Istanbul municipality confirmed to Al Jazeera the alcohol ban remains in place.

The decision to exempt tourists from restrictions has also been heavily criticised. A Turkish man was arrested over the weekend for swimming in the sea, which has been banned, despite four tourists taking a dip at the time.

Turkey recorded 394 COVID deaths on Friday, its largest daily toll, but its daily case number has dipped to about 25,000 from a peak of more than 63,000 a few weeks ago. The country ranks fourth globally in the number of daily cases based on a seven-day average, according to a Reuters tally, and travel warnings remain in place in Germany, the United Kingdom, Bulgaria and Iran.

‘Bored with this stuff’

According to the interior ministry, more than two million work exemption permits have been issued to people working in the manufacturing, food, hygiene and health sectors. The roads and public transport are still busy in some Istanbul neighbourhoods, and tourists are allowed to roam freely, leaving struggling businesses to question whether the damage to their income is necessary, especially during what is normally one of the busiest shopping periods.

Last Thursday, ahead of the start of the lockdown at 7pm, parks filled with people enjoying their last chance to socialise and there was little sign of police efforts to limit the crowds. People flocked to supermarkets, clearing the shelves of alcohol, and traders said they saw double their recent business.

Murat, 40, waits for customers in Kucukpazar public bazaar in Fatih, Istanbul [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

Politicians have been criticised for flouting COVID restrictions after a number of ministers from the ruling AK Party, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, attended a crowded funeral on Sunday in violation of restrictions limiting attendance to 10. They have also been criticised in the past for holding large party congresses attended by thousands.

Many shops were already ignoring a nightly curfew before the latest lockdown came into effect.

“Before the lockdown, everyone was supposed to close at 6pm, but they stayed open until 7pm or 8pm and no one would say anything. Even the police are bored with this kind of stuff,” said Yildiz.

“The lockdown will not be good for anything. People don’t care any more now, it’s too late… We have bigger problems,” he said, referring to those who fear for the survival of their businesses.

Murat, 40, who sells kiwis in a street market in the Balat neighbourhood, said he has lost 15,000 lira ($1,800) in profits since the start of the pandemic.

“I have been making less money than I spend because everything is increasing in price – gas, electricity, it all goes up, but whatever I make, it doesn’t go up. I cannot make a living,” he said.

“The price of my stall has increased. Three times more. We owe money to the bank. The government is not providing help. I owe a lot of money on credit cards, and now I can’t make money for almost three weeks. I have five children and I don’t know what to do.”

While supermarkets, which already posed a threat to independent food sellers, are allowed to remain open, small stalls selling cheese, fruit and vegetables have been forced to close as the restrictions only allow people to visit their nearest food store.

“We are not scared of corona, we are scared of hunger,” Murat said.

“It doesn’t matter how many people die. The government just does favours for whoever supports them. Whatever happens, it is usually only the poor who are affected, no one else.”

Source: Al Jazeera