Channa Sokhim runs a popular papaya salad in the center of Phnom Penh’s tourist area, right behind the Royal Palace. In two years, she turned it from a small stall to an established restaurant known for its papaya salads.
But, the last few weeks have been disastrous for her. The restaurant had seen a massive drop in clients, on account of the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in falling income for the restaurant. Receipts went from around $1,000 a day down to $100.
Sitting in her restaurant, two floors with 50 tables and unoccupied chairs, 37-year-old Channa Sokhim said her earnings have dropped proportional to the increases in coronavirus cases reported in the country. As of Tuesday morning, Cambodia had confirmed 109 positive cases in the country.
"From [March] 3, when the coronavirus test results were reported, our income had dropped to $500 and then $400,” she said. “In the evenings, there are no travelers or people passing by.”
After reporting just one case in January, Cambodia has seen all its cases reported in March. Thereafter the government ordered all schools and universities closed, and cancelled public gatherings at concerts, karaoke bars, beer gardens and cinemas.
However, Prime Minister Hun Sen has refused to announce a lockdown and said he will not shut down cafes, restaurants, markets or garment factories.
Even though they have escaped an ordered shutdown, restaurants and eateries, both small and big, are finding it hard to attract customers, many of whom are staying or working from home to ride out the pandemic.
Unable to pay the overheads, Channa Sokhim said she had to reduce her staff from 15 to just four people, adding that another two months of bad business and she will have no choice but to shut it down.
“Everyone tries to convince themselves to not get discouraged, but businesses need to earn money. We are trying to sell, but we are tired,” Channa Sokhim said.
Kol sells breakfast foods in the morning and the staples of rice and soup every evening at Silib market in Phnom Penh’s Chaktomouk district. The small restaurant has lost nearly 90 percent of its clientele in just the last few weeks. Seeing this drop in customers, Kol proactively decided to stop dine-in customers and only accept takeaway orders.
This was not only to reduce overheads but also to protect herself and her staff from contracting the respiratory disease from a customer.
“Before that virus spread, we sold 100 per cent of food cooked, and now it's only 10 per cent,” Kol said, asking to only give her first name. “Then I decided to stop serving at the tables because we were afraid that we cannot protect ourselves and the guests.”
Small vendors who travel from neighborhood to neighborhood selling fried noodles, cold drinks or fruit, are probably facing the worst of this economic slowdown.
Busy frying noodles at the corner of Preah Ket Mealea Hospital, 45-year-old Yan Swan said people were reluctant to leave their homes to come out and buy food from him.
He added that he earns around $150 a day to support his family, with the noodle cart remaining open 24 hours a day.
The food cart vendor, who is a native of Kampuchea Krom, added that if the condition persists, he would take his family back to the former Cambodian territory to see if he could find a job there.
"If the virus slowly reduces and more people come out, then I will continue selling noodles,” he said. “But if it stays like this, we will not be able to afford it.
“If we stay we would have no money to pay for housing and place to sell noodles. If it is still like this, I will go to my hometown to do other business.”
Restaurant owners and food sellers, like other workers and business owners, are asking for measures to alleviate the current economic slowdown, such as suspending loan repayments for a few months or even moratorium on evictions and rent payments.
Hak Lina, president of the Cambodian Restaurant Association, said that if this situation continued, all restaurants would have to close, adding that the restaurant sector needed government intervention.
“[The government] should help pay salaries of employees who work at closed restaurants registered at the Ministry [of Commerce],” Hak Lina said. “There are also interventions in banking, house rentals, and other expenses, such as deductions for water and utilities, that can help.”
According to Ms. Lina, so far there is no specific figure on the number of restaurants that have closed because of the coronavirus pandemic nor was she aware of the number of workers affected by the slowdown.
Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday announced that Cambodia had $800 million to weather out the pandemic for six months and $2 billion if it extended for another year, but has yet to clarify how this money will be spent.
He has given the tourism and garment sector tax breaks, as well as promised to pay garment workers 20 percent of their basic minimum wage.
Meas Sok Sensan, spokesman for the Ministry of Economy and Finance, said the ministry was studying the needs of all sectors but no decisions had been taken yet.
“It is not just restaurants. We need to think about the impact of other sectors. So we don't just deal with one problem. We deal with all,” he said.