Shorter hours, cleaner air? Egypt may extend its Covid-19 evening curfew
By Menna A. Farouk
As coronavirus restrictions ease, business is rebounding in Cairo’s cafes, restaurants and shops. In the evenings, the sounds of street vendors plying their wares blends with the honking of horns, as the city gets back to normal.
But the evening revival may not last long.
To try to hold onto dramatic improvements in air quality during the city's lockdown, the government now has proposed to permanently ban late-night shopping and dining, in an effort to keep cars at home and hold down electricity use.
"It is mainly for environmental, economic and social reasons," Khaled Qassem, a spokesman for the Egyptian Ministry of Local Development, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Besides the environmental benefits, the change would allow families to spend more time together in the evenings and potentially reduce crime, backers said.
Qassem said that the ministry, having tried out the evening shutdown during a partial coronavirus lockdown, now hoped to shorten working hours for shops, cafes, restaurants and malls in the post-coronavirus period.
According to a government study, hours would vary by the type of business and where it is located, and "tourist establishments will have exceptional rules,” Qassem said.
But shortening working hours would "reduce our energy consumption, reduce traffic, lower air pollution rates" and free streets for evening trash pickups, he said.
A night curfew imposed as part of precautionary measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus led to a 36% air quality improvement in Greater Cairo, with even bigger gains in coastal cities and the Nile Delta, according to data from the Egyptian Ministry of Environment.
Plans to continue shortened working hours are now under consideration by the prime minister's cabinet.
In television statements, cabinet spokesman Nader Saad has said the government is "serious about the matter" and that the changes would be permanent and last beyond the coronavirus crisis.
DOUBTS - AND ENTHUSIASM
While some shop owners have welcomed the plan as a way to cut payroll and energy costs, others have said it would seriously hurt their income.
"People start to come to cafes and restaurants at 8 pm. Why do they want to close them at 10 pm?" asked Mohamed Bayoumi, a cafe owner in Heliopolis, in eastern Cairo.
Bayoumi said that even after his cafe had reopened in the evenings, his revenues were still down by half and only a tenth of his former employees were working because customer demand was down and he had been forced to shorten working hours.
But Waheed Moustafa, an employee at a nearby coffee shop, said he supported the change as it would let him finish work early and spend more time with his family.
“Sometimes I finish work very late and do not find public transport to go back home. It is better to open early and finish early," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A nationwide union of chambers of commerce said it had formally asked its members to consult with employees about the plan.
Saber Osman, head of the Egyptian Ministry of Environment's climate change department, said the proposed changes could cut the country's energy consumption by up to 17%, dramatically lowering carbon dioxide emissions.
With less movement of vehicles at night, fuel consumption would also be reduced, he said.
Egypt has slashed energy subsidies since 2015 and is planning to eliminate them entirely by 2025.
Between the second half of 2018 and the second half of 2019, subsidy payments fell by more than two thirds, to 9.9 billion Egyptian pounds ($630 million), the government said in February.
But Osman raised concerns that the new shorter-hours plan could affect jobs and cut into revenue for businesses.
A spokesman for the Local Development Ministry, however, downplayed the problem, saying the changes would drive different kinds of demand, such as for delivery and online shopping "as happened during the coronavirus lockdown".