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Cazabon Wine and Cocktail Bar Restaurant Manager Jeanine Smith at the Restaurant in One Woodbrook Place in Woodbrook, Port-of-Spain yesterday.

Joshua Seemungal

There’s a peculiar eeriness about a closed restaurant, but with each passing week, that surreal feeling is becoming more familiar at Cazabon Wine and Cocktail Bar, at One Woodbrook Place, Port-of-Spain.

With its owner Joseph Fernandes deeming take-out-only service financially impractical, it’s been closed for all but two months since March.

Chairs are now stacked, glasses rest empty and idle.

“Before COVID, in the restaurant, everything was very smooth, sales were good. I enjoyed working here. I had planned my family, and as you can see, I’m pregnant,” 36-year-old restaurant manager Jeanine Smith said.

With more than ten years experience in the industry, Smith’s last two years have been spent ensuring things run smoothly.

However, with the restaurant closed, life outside of its doors is becoming more difficult for her.

With her salary cut by 60 per cent, she’s moved from apartment to apartment, and feels continuously overwhelmed.

“It put a toll on me. At a time I even thought I would do an abortion or something, so I could go out there and do something different. So that I could have a source of income to support my family, help my spouse,” Smith admitted, her voice beginning to break.

These worries, she said, come despite her boss’ best attempts to support staff.

It’s not Cazabon’s owners who she feels let down by. She was expecting outside dining to be allowed as part of the recent changes to the country’s public health regulations.

“It’s a pandemic that is beyond our control. I fully understand that, but at the end of the day, people have to live. What will we do,” she asked passionately.

Seven months ago, Aaron joined the restaurant’s team, tasked with helping redesign the menu.

When he started in March, 10 people were working in the kitchen but only the head chef and himself are now left.

Like Jeanine, he too felt sorry to hear that twenty of his colleagues had to be laid off.

But, at the end of the day, he said, he has his worries.

“I have three kids – a 15-year-old and two nine-year-olds – so even when it’s time for schooling, to send them back out to school, to go buy books is a struggle as well. I had to get assistance from my family,” he said.

His colleague, Service Manager Lincoln Ramrattan, started two months ago.

For him, Cazabon offered a new beginning – one he needed.

He was laid off in March.

“When the first shutdown came, the employer actually came to my home and she said, I don’t want you’ll to be catching your tail in between, and then, shortly after, she sent out an email stating that the establishment has to shut down,” Lincoln recalled.

As a father of two girls, with no means of income, he said his future has never seemed more uncertain.

He added that he’s never seen the industry, which he’s been part of for 20 years, in a state like this before.

“Some people are in a bad state and actually have nothing at all. Some people say they have no savings, so they don’t know how they are going to pay their bills. People stressed, depressed and frustrated,” he added.

Fifteen months ago, Joseph Fernandes and his wife, Cynthia Bacchus-Fernandes, opened the restaurant’s doors, excited about the business’ future.

It was wonderful in the beginning, Fernandes remembered with a smile.

“We bring people together and this is the reason why this industry has been so impacted by this thing. Our concept is to bring people together – the life and joy of the country,” he said.

Weeks into the first non-essential ban, however, he realized that the pandemic’s impact was significantly affecting his business and industry.

With his income stream gone, and rent to pay, Fernandes made the decision early on to stick by his staff.

They have been loyal, hard workers, he said.

But, after a few weeks, tough decisions had to be taken.

Staff was cut from around 60 employees to 40, and salaries were cut by 60 per cent.

In an attempt to help those laid off, he sends them hampers.

“It is one of the most difficult things I think any employer has to do. But at the end of the day, for everybody to continue to swim, you maybe need to lighten the load a little bit, but they all understood,” Cazabon’s owner said.

While he was able to keep on staff, he said, many other restaurant owners in the industry were not able to do so.

He described the current state of the industry as gruesome.

“We have not seen the support from the government that we expected. There could have been more creative ways to have supported the sector because we are completely shut down. It wasn’t put in place and it should be. But, it’s not too late,” Fernandes insisted.

The restaurant owner asked for the government to put a roadmap for reopening in place.

He said it is unfair for employers and employees to be forced to sit and wait every two weeks for news, without any knowledge of what is coming.

“Once we have that roadmap, to know how we are going to get out, we need to know what the government intends to do with us, as businesses, so we can continue to support and employ people going forward for the next 2-3 years,” Fernandes said.

In the absence of this, he said, the industry will see more closures, while depression and hopelessness among employees will worsen.