July 22, 2020 / 2:56 PM / 12 days ago

South African restaurants plead for end to 'job-killing' restrictions

* Restaurants and bars hard-hit by lockdown restrictions

* Ban on alcohol sales one of main sore points

* 9 p.m. curfew also keeping customers away

* About 400,000 jobs lost since end of March

By Nqobile Dludla

JOHANNESBURG, July 22 (Reuters) - Thousands of South African restaurant and bar owners placed tables and chairs on the streets outside their premises on Wednesday in a nationwide protest against lockdown restrictions that prevent them from selling alcohol or trading after 9 p.m.

The nation's hospitality sector is one of the hardest-hit by government restrictions imposed at the end of March to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

At the end of June, restaurants were allowed to offer sit-down services again, but at limited capacity and without serving alcohol.

But that is not enough for Llewy Mateza, owner of The Local Grill in the Parktown North suburb of Johannesburg.

"I'd like the government to reinstate the sale of alcohol, which would then make my business sustainable to a certain extent. Alcohol in my restaurant accounts for 40% of my sales," Mateza said outside his 150-seater steakhouse that has not re-opened since the end of March.

He has not laid off staff, but about 70% of them have not received any money yet from the government's Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), which has been paying out COVID-19 relief payments to employees who cannot work as a result of the restrictions.

The Department of Employment and Labour has said the delays in payments have been due to a lengthy vetting process and adapting its systems to cope with a ten-fold increase in benefit payments.

Mxolisi Mhlongo, a waiter at The Local Grill, said he was selling fish and vegetables from his garden to fend for his wife and three children.

Waiter Devin Moyo, who works at nearby restaurant Rockets, said he had not been able to afford the smallest things for his family.

"Just to pay the bills has become a problem. The government hasn't done enough in helping us with the UIF so most of the families are going to bed hungry," Moyo said, holding a placard reading #JobsSaveLives.

Wendy Alberts, chief executive officer of the Restaurant Association of South Africa, said about 400,000 jobs have been lost in the sector since the end of March, with more businesses closing their doors permanently every day.

A recent survey by Esus-Group found about 67% of restaurants were receiving less than 20% of their usual monthly turnover compared to July last year, while 90% of fine-dining restaurants had stayed shut since the lockdown began. (Reporting by Nqobile Dludla Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

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