Turkish shops ignore nightly curfew to pay back mounting debts

Shopkeepers and small business owners may have to ignore the strict lockdown Turkey has been under since April 29 as they continue to struggle with accumulating debt, Al Jazeera English reported on Tuesday.

Under the current lockdown, the strictest to date in the country, most shops will remain closed for 12 more days, until May 17. Only essential shops such as butchers, bakeries and grocery stores are allowed to remain open, with limited hours. Sale of alcohol in both small liquor shops and chain supermarkets is banned throughout the lockdown.

Small businesses were already struggling before the pandemic hit Turkey, a shopkeeper from Istanbul’s liberal Moda neighbourhood told Al Jazeera. Yıldız, who runs a liquor shop, told the network that he was planning to continue to sell to his regulars, but not to strangers. The fine for breaking curfew is more than 10 times Turkey’s minimum wage, at 30,000 liras ($3,600).

The government “did nothing, less than nothing,” the shopkeeper said.

Turkey is among the countries that offered the least amount of support to its citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic, an IMF report published in April found. The country spent 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product on pandemic relief, BirGün newspaper reported.

Since December, the government has imposed nationwide weekend lockdowns, which were first practiced in April and May last year as coronavirus case numbers rose. There has also been a weekday curfew in place, forcing businesses to shut down at 6 p.m.

“But they stayed open until 7pm or 8pm and no one would say anything. Even the police are bored with this kind of stuff,” Yıldız said.

A stall keeper at a farmers market, Murat, told Al Jazeera that he had lost 15,000 liras ($1,800) in profits since the beginning of the pandemic.

While Murat’s rent for his stall tripled, his income didn’t go up. “The government is not providing help. I owe a lot of money on credit cards,” he said, “and now I can’t make money for almost three weeks. I have five children and I don’t know what to do.”

Markets like the one Murat works at were listed among the businesses to shut down. The order caused wholesalers to stop buying produce, which saw farmers dump their wares into trash heaps. Following outrage on social media, the Interior Ministry has since rescinded the decision and farmers markets and street markets will be allowed to open on Saturdays under the lockdown.

Most small corner shops have already lost a lot of business to chain supermarkets as they can’t compete with their prices, and many get by on the sale of alcohol and tobacco products. However, alcohol sales have been banned during weekends since weekend lockdowns were reinstated, starting with an Interior Ministry circular on Dec. 8.

The alcohol ban has been one of the most disputed measures taken in the country, and critics say it is motivated by religious sensibilities instead of healthcare.

One journalist called it “social engineering”, while opposition deputy Veli Ağbaba said the move amounted to interference with secular lifestyles.

Turkey currently ranks fourth globally in the number of daily cases, Al Jazeera cited a Reuters tally as saying.

Streets remain busy as foreign tourists are exempt from restrictions, and factories and food producers are still open. As such, shopkeepers are asking whether the hit they are taking to their finances is necessary, Al Jazeera said.