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Chef Patron Matthew Gordon of French Connection Bistro and his staff took part in the protest against lockdown regulations that are killing the hospitality and tourism industries and causing massive job losses and hunger.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020, was a perfect day for a protest; warm and sunny with nary a breeze. Ordinarily the village would be filled with visitors making the best of a wonderful winter’s day.  Instead, it’s the locals who are out in force protesting Corona lockdown regulations that have choked off tourism – the valley’s economic lifeblood. Chef Patron Matthew Gordon of French Connection Bistro accurately captured the economic reality when he posted that “Our town is on life support”. So did the trending hashtag #jobssavelives.

After four months of lockdown, the hospitality industry in Franschhoek and the rest of South Africa is fighting desperately to survive. Wendy Alberts, CEO of the Restaurant Association of South Africa, said that about 400 000 jobs have been lost in the sector since the imposition of the lockdown, with more businesses folding every day. Margot Janse, chief judge of the Eat Out Awards, summed up what is needed in a Cape Talk interview: “The curfew needs to move to a more realistic time that is respectful to our industry. The alcohol ban needs to be relaxed for the hospitality industry… We should be allowed to act as adults… Let us get back on our feet!”

In an effort for their ‘voices to be heard’ local tourism and hospitality businesses and their employees called for the immediate reopening of tourism – first domestic and then international. Restaurants in the main road – like many others all over the country – put tables and chairs in parking spaces while placard-waving staff encouraged passing motorists to ‘honk for jobs’ or ‘honk if you’re jobless’.  The cacophony was impressive.

Foremost for many of those protesting was the liquor ban. Several restauranteurs the Tatler spoke to said it simply doesn’t make financial sense for them to re-open if they can’t serve alcohol.  In the meantime most staff must survive with reduced wages – that are threatening to run out – and, if they’re among the fortunate, irregular TERS payments. That’s difficult to do when each employee has to sustain another 2 – 5 people.

It is not only restaurants that are feeling the pain. It is the entire restaurant supply chain.  Kerston Foods, a prominent Western Cape food distributor, had its fleet of delivery vehicles drive down Huguenot Street in support of the protest. Wine farms also joined in.

Accommodation providers are similarly feeling the pain of Covid-induced travel restrictions. Local resident Tim Roggenbach – owner of Ashbourne House Guest House – was moved to start an online petition to “Open Tourism in South Africa NOW” (https://www.change.org/Open_Tourism_in_SA_NOW). His petition received more than 20 000 signatures in less than a week.

A number of Franschhoek restaurants – including Chefs Warehouse at Maison and Reuben’s Restaurant – are also among those challenging the lockdown regulations in the Western Cape High Court. They are challenging the banning of the sale of alcohol in licensed restaurants and are also asking for a declaratory order to relax the curfew to 23h00 for restaurant patrons.

In a press release Franschhoek Wine Valley lent its support to the industry’s protest, adding “All tourism-related companies have understood the importance of implementing decisive steps to contain the spread of the virus, and have already done so. However, the lack of ongoing guidance by the Tourism Minister leaves most feeling thoroughly disillusioned. Unfortunately the absence of a master plan to rescue the tourism sector has left many tourism businesses feeling further disheartened. European countries such as Austria, Germany and even Italy have proven over the last months that it is possible to operate restaurants and hotels safely with strict Corona regulations. Surely the same could apply to the South African tourism sector?”

Let’s hope the presidency responds to the invitation extended by Chef Darren Badenhorst of Le Coin Français to “take any empty seat and hear our pleas.”