Restaurant owners at Sorchen, Chhukha and drivers ferrying goods from Phuentsholing to other parts of the country are not happy with the notification of the Southern COVID-19 Task Force (SC19TF) that states to suspend their businesses and vacate their places with immediate effect.
The Gedu COVID-19 Taskforce (GC19TF) had issued the notification to restaurant owners to vacate and suspend their businesses latest by 13 February, and until the situation improves.
The taskforce office again issued a notification through the Geling Gup, Chhukha to vacate immediately with a warning to cut off the electricity and water connection on 18 February after some businesses failed to abide by the earlier notification.
Further, the notification warns that further action will be taken if they failed to comply with the letter sent on 9 February.
There are eight restaurant operators along the roadsides who mainly cater to truckers driving on the highway. However, the restaurant owners have appealed to the SC19TF through the office of Geling Gup to reconsider the decision.
Restaurant owners stated that closing their business would affect them economically and socially. They also said that until the SC19TF instructs them to reopen their business, they would remain inside their business sheds and comply with all COVID-19 protocols enforced on them.
However, officials from the Bhutan Power Corporation (BPC) in Phuentsholing cut-off the electricity supplies at the site on 18 February as directed by SC19TF.
One of the restaurant owners at the roadside, Dorji Dema, said that her family cannot vacate the place immediately as she had nowhere to go. Nonetheless, her repeated plea for time extension fell into deaf ears as the officials denied their requests.
“Cutting off the electricity supply which is a basic necessity and threatening us repeatedly to leave the place is not justified and we are completely disheartened,” she said, adding that instead of considering their plea they are being constantly harassed by the taskforce officials.
She said the restaurant owners have followed all COVID-19 protocols. “We are contributing towards containment of the virus but now authorities are chasing back to the place where there are more virus transmissions.”
Dorji Dema further said she had already surrendered her house in Phuentsholing town and shifted at the current location to earn a living and to look after family while staying away from a red zone.
Another restaurant owner Passang Lhamo who came to Sorchen from Phuentsholing said she was also disheartened as there was no one to listen to them and address the situation.
She said the objective of SC19TF is to contain virus and that the roadside operators are also concerned citizens who are willing to abide by all rules imposed on them.
Passang said that chasing them away is not a viable option as they also have families and mouths to feed. She added they have abided by all protocols till date and are willing to continue doing so.
Meanwhile, the restaurants owners had informed the Member of Parliament of their constituency, the Dzongdag, Opposition Leader and the Prime Minister including taskforce members. They have also requested SC19TF members to deploy Desuup and police personnel for surveillance if they are suspicious of any of them breaching protocols.
Another restaurant owner Sangay Wangmo said that the SC19TF’s notification is outright unfair. She said the taskforce members should point out reasons if they have wronged or breached the rules.
According to them, the distance between the restaurant and transshipment locations are about one-two kilometers apart and there is no way the people of these two sites can come into contact. She also pointed out that the explanation of officials, as reported in media, of drivers testing positive is also untrue.
Though the site of their business operation is in a government land, Sangay Wangmo said they are operating after getting the necessary approval. “We have been following the rules and regulations till now, but now they are chasing as if we are like miscreants, “she added.
After their numerous appeal to officials going unheeded, Sangay Wangmo said they are now worried as it is their only source of livelihood. She also shared that authorities are chasing people from safer zone to red zone.
The restaurant owners were informed by the SC19TF members that they will facilitate the movements. However, Sangay Wangmo said she had already surrendered her earlier place and that she would have nowhere to go.
Pema Yangden who has been running her business for three months said that it is very uncompassionate of the officials to have the audacity to cut-off their power supplies. “We are treated like outsiders even when they know that we are deprived of basic necessities,” she said.
Another business owner Tshencho said that officials are treating the restaurant owners of Sorchen roadside harshly even as they are coming to terms with the pandemic. He said they are offering services to drivers who are also serving the nation. Compared to other locations like Kamji, Gedu and Sontolakha, he said Sorchen is at convenient and safer location.
The affected restaurant owners said that the officials could at the least not cut off their electricity and water supplies as they are desperate individuals trying to eke out a decent living.
Another restaurateur Dawa Tshering said that all restaurant owners at Sorchen roadside are people with low income who have no other means to sustain their livelihoods.
He said that the restaurant owners had requested the authorities to at least allow them to remain there without operating the businesses until the situation improves. However, he said that the officials did not accept their appeal and rather warned them repeatedly to vacate the place.
“Sending people from green to red zone should not be a solution to contain the virus. It implies that we should be also infected by the virus,” Dawa said.
21-year-old Rinchen Zam who also runs a restaurant at the roadside to support her ageing parents and her family said she would have nowhere to go if the taskforce chase them away from their present location.
Meanwhile, truckers ferrying essentials said the restaurants at Sorchen are the most convenient location for them to stop for a meal. He said they are sent to Phuentsholing the morning and made to wait till evening at Sorchen.
He added that if authorities ask to vacate the hoteliers there would be no place to for them to take their meals and halt at night.
A driver from Paro, Namgay, who ferries essential items, said that services provided by the restaurant owners had been helpful. He said the authorities asking the restaurants at the Sorchen roadside will not only affect the hoteliers but all the drivers as well.
He said until now no virus has been spread from the Sorchen restaurants. “I don’t find any reason for authorities to close the restaurants. Where shall we spend the night and consume meals if these hotels are closed,” he said.
Meanwhile, the restaurant owners are facing extreme difficulties after the taskforce officials snapped their power supplies. Some of them have resorted going to Kamji, about four kilometers away, even to charge their mobile phones.
Geling Gup Kinley Dorji said gewog administration has forwarded their request to GC19TF and to SC19TF. He said that they have also requested the SC19TF to deploy security personnel at the site and let the owners run their businesses as the lives of many families are at stake.