Consumers wary of post-social distancing freedom

By Long Nguyen   May 12, 2020 | 05:59 pm PT
Following the semi-lockdown ease three weeks ago, many Hanoi and HCMC residents remain cautious of the outdoors.

This year's Mother's Day was also Le Thi Thu Phuong's 45th birthday. Instead of celebrating at her favorite restaurant in downtown Saigon as usual, the family decided to party at home.

"The kids always opt to go out, but I don’t think we are ready for that, even though the national distancing campaign was lifted," said Phuong, an accountant in Saigon's District 1.

She is among millions of Vietnamese urbanites cautiously returning to eateries and entertainment venues since the semi-lockdown ease on April 23.

On May 7, with the country going 21 days with community transmission of Covid-19, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc allowed localities to organize sports events and festivals, and resume most non-essential services though still advising people to wear masks and use hand sanitizer. While karaoke parlors and clubs remain closed, bars in Ho Chi Minh City were allowed to reopen last weekend.

A bar on Saigons Bui Vien Street has no patron on May 9, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Huy.

A restaurant on Saigon's Bui Vien Street stand empty on May 9, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Huy.

Both Hanoi and HCMC allowed cinemas to commence screenings on May 9. Despite these regained freedoms, however, attendance has been few.

On Hanoi's Xuan Thuy Street, less than a dozen masked youngsters stood in line to buy movie tickets last Saturday night.

At National Cinema Center, only five in 12 screens operated on the same weekend, even during prime hours, according to Nguyen Danh Duong, general manager.

"Fewer people visit the cinema now, probably because they are still wary of being outside," he added.

A Starbucks staff member in Saigon's District 1 said the current number of customers averaged only around 60 percent that of former times.

Vu Thi Hoang Huong, owner of a local restaurant on Saigon's Truong Sa Street, said the number of patrons was highest on the first day after social distancing campaign relaxed, "then kept dropping."

"Loyal customers returned right after we reopen, but we have hardly seen them in the past three weeks," Huong lamented.

After the four-day national holiday earlier this month, usually crowded shopping malls saw only a few shoppers supporting their favorite stores, employing various promotions to attract custom.

Change is the only constant

Several restaurants and coffee shops in Vietnam’s two largest metropolises still require customers to have their temperatures checked and wear masks, with hand sanitizer available at many amid the threat of a possible second outbreak.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has called on citizens to remain alert and aware they are dealing with a pandemic.

"Look at China and South Korea, many people have dropped their guard too soon and suffered another wave of infections," said Huynh My Ha, 26. The bank clerk in Saigon's District 10 used to hang out with her friends at several downtown bubble tea stores, but now stays home every weekend.

"We are not done fighting Covid-19, so no one is completely ready for shopping or eating out yet," Ha noted.

The nation’s Covid-19 tally has remained at 288 since last Thursday, with the number of active patients down to 36 after three relapsed patients, all Brazilian, were discharged Tuesday.

Moviegoers wait in line to buy tickets at Galaxy Cinema in Saigons District 1 on May 9, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Moviegoers wait in line to buy tickets at Galaxy Cinema in Saigon's District 1 on May 9, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Last month, a Nielsen survey found 62 percent of Vietnamese eat at home a lot more or a little more often after the Covid-19 semi-lockdown. Another 26 percent said they would continue eating at home like before.

"The Covid-19 crisis has certainly changed both attitudes and behavior," said Vaughan Ryan, managing director for Southeast Asia at Nielsen Connect.

Do Thi Nguyet Hang, a 48-year-old accountant in Hanoi, is one urbanite to have change her habits in the last few months. 

"I did not enjoy cooking for my family until I had no choice during semi-lockdown. I think I will keep cooking even if things are returning to normal, it is healthier and helps me save," she maintained.

For those not experiencing a behavioral shift, lower incomes and economic downturn have made them hunker down for an uncertain future.

"My friends and I are not ready to splash out since our incomes are vulnerable, who knows whether we will lose our jobs or have our salaries cut," said Tran Thi Thuy Tien, HR specialist in Saigon's District 3.

She added instead of showing off new lipstick or clothes, her friends now encourage each other to reduce spending.

"Our wallets are not ready for the new normal." 

According to International Labour Organization, up to 10.3 million people in Vietnam could be impacted by the pandemic, losing their jobs or seeing their incomes decline in the second quarter of 2020. 

Phuong is lucky to still have a job, though now she refrains from going for lunch with her colleagues.

On Monday, the District 1 food court she previously frequented during lunch breaks saw less than ten patrons, all practicing social distancing and wearing masks. 

"These pandemic scars will remain," Phuong said, munching on a home-cooked meal.

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