‘Tis indeed the season to be jolly but the emergence of a new Covid variant and reimposed restrictions in some places just when things were looking up has the hospitality sector– and party-goers hoping to make the most of Christmas and year-end festivities – worried yet again.
Though Christmas lights are up in several cities, the feeling of déjà vu, of another year-end of lengthening Covid shadows – this time of the Omicron variant – has dampened the Yuletide spirit. And while many restaurants and hotels are going ahead with their Christmas and New Year plans, it’s all edged with uncertainty and dread that another wave might be just around the corner.
The party may not go on. But nobody can be sure. Be it Delhi or Mumbai, Kolkata or Bengaluru, optimism for a happy and healthy end to the year clashes with the stress of not really knowing what lies ahead. The mantra, as an industry insider put it, is cautiously optimistic
In the national capital, where the Delhi Disaster Management Authority on Wednesday directed district magistrates to ensure no Christmas and New Year gathering takes place in view of the rising Omicron cases, restaurateurs sought more clarity.
The DDMA order, they said, permits bars and restaurants to operate with up to 50 per cent of seating capacity without specifying whether they can host Christmas and New Year parties.
"Whether we can organise a party or not is a grey area. We hope the government will issue a clarification before December 31," Joy Singh, co-partner of Raasta and Yeti, said.
He said they are opting to be cautious and organise only sit-down lunches and dinners.
A restaurant owner in Khan Market, the buzzing shopping and eating destination in the heart of the city, said this is their turnaround moment but it may not happen.
"We were hoping the (DDMA) order would bring some relief but we will have to settle for 50 per cent of the crowd. Ever since the pandemic, we have been facing issues with lockdown and then the curbs… We understand there is the Omicron threat, but other areas are fully functional, so why to target our industry?"
Sahil Sambhi of the Drunken Botanist, a bar-eatery in Gurgaon’s Cyber Hub abutting Delhi, is equally despairing.
“…This is the most rewarding time for the F&B industry. That said, we will abide by the 50 per cent rule strictly and will follow all Covid protocols to the tee. We had planned a few events on the occasion, but I am afraid we have to cancel those now amid the fresh curbs imposed by the state government,” the director of Drunken Botanist said.
Given the escalating number of cases and the fear of another wave, the industry is battling tremendous odds anyway.
According to a survey by English news app Inshorts, about 63 per cent of Delhi residents said they will "stay at home" while 29 per cent said they would like to be part of "small get-togethers". Of the 15,000 people surveyed, four per cent said they would like to dine out or travel on the occasion.
In Karnataka, the state government has said there will no deejays, no parties from December 31 to January 2. And the 50 per cent cap on occupancy also stands. To add to it, some groups have announced a shutdown on New Year’s Eve to press for a ban on the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti, which recently allegedly defaced the statue of 19th-century warrior Sangolli Rayanna, in Belagavi.
Chetan Hegde, the owner of 1522- The Pub in the state capital Bengaluru, said business has dipped by 30 to 40 per cent in the last two years.
"We were expecting a good business this year but again the Omicron has surfaced. We are bound by all the restrictions," Hegde said.
"We had sold our tickets online in good numbers but the restrictions came in the last minute,” added Hitesh Tulsani, operations manager of the Raahi Neo Kitchen and Bar in the city.
Tracking the falling numbers during peak season for the business, he said there was a crowd of about 500 people in his restaurant on December 31, 2019. This plunged to only 30 last year. And this year looks dismal too.
The mood is distinctly downcast in Tamil Nadu as well.
Residency Group COO Gopinath B said they are waiting for official communication from the government.
If there is a ban, celebrations will be subdued; if not, New Year’s Eve will be a big celebration, complete with deejays.
"Covid will not only affect the hospitality industry but also other kinds of industries… We want to be very careful instead of slipping into another mess," he said.
The mood is optimistic but the uncertainty is palpable in Mumbai as well.
"Currently, we are witnessing positive consumer sentiment following pent up demand," said Nikhil Sharma, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts Regional Director - Eurasia.
The company's Ramada Plaza Juhu property has been getting over 55 per cent footfalls for the Christmas and New Year period, and these bookings are expected to rise further for this period.
"Mumbai, as a destination, sees last-minute bookings by locals during this period, and we remain cautiously optimistic," Sharma added.
“Business has been encouraging in the last two months and the sentiment for the festive season is very positive,” said Ravi Ramachandran, general manager, Radisson Mumbai, Andheri MIDC.
But the situation could change. At the moment, due to reports on rising Omicron cases in Maharashtra, bookings for New Year celebrations a week away are low and the outlook is not as promising as it seemed at the beginning of the month.
In Kolkata, famous for its year-end festive vibe, the mood is optimistic.
According to Sudesh Poddar, president of the Hotel and Restaurants Association of Eastern India, the threat of Omicron has so far not impacted the hospitality industry in the city and in other parts of West Bengal. "All our restaurants are recording good turnout which is only increasing in the run-up to Christmas. Restaurants will be open till 1 am from December 24 to January 1 and those serving liquor beyond that if permitted by the Excise department,” Poddar, who also runs Songhai and Manthan, said.
Nitin Kothari, the owner of Peter Cat and Mocambo, said the popular eateries have been seeing full houses for the last week. "We have been maintaining all Covid protocols since the restaurants opened after the lockdown. There has been no laxity… we are adhering to the 70 per cent occupancy limit as stipulated by the state."
India recorded 122 cases of the Omicron variant, the highest so far, pushing its tally in the country to 358, according to Union Health Ministry data on Friday. Of these, 114 have either recovered or migrated.
India recorded 6,650 new coronavirus infections, taking its tally of cases to 3,47,72,626.