“Church restaurants” pop up as weekend quarantine deepens COVID-19 double standards in Ukraine

Restaurant Veterano Brownie morped into the Church of St. Brownie. Photo from Veterano Brownie's FB page 

Politics

Edited by: Sonia Maryn

Since September 2020, Ukraine has seen a rapid growth of new coronavirus cases. ccording to official statistics, from 2,000 new daily cases in September to a record 13,000 per day. This means a rise from 62,000 to 306,000 of currently active cases. An exceptionally high number of hospitalizations may create difficulties for Ukrainian hospitals, the government warns. At the same time, officials have done little to provide assistance, such as opening mobile hospitals that could help ease the situation. The availability of current hospital beds is not yet critical but may well become so. In Kyiv — with more-than-average Covid-19 cases per 100,000 capita — the hospital load is 57%.

Choosing not to expand mobile hospitals, the government has instead focused on furthering the policy of bans and has now introduced “weekend quarantine.”

This measure means an almost total lockdown for the weekend but minimal limitations during the week. Minister of Health Maksym Stepanov claimed that because of their summer weekend lockdown, Israel decreased new coronavirus cases by 20%.

Ukrainian small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have protested the new measures. Some doubt the effectiveness of weekend lockdowns. Others cite the Constitution which protects the right to work. Yet others point to double standards that allow huge supermarket chains to stay open, while cafes and small shops must close or face constant police raids. Some entrepreneurs have reacted creatively, “converting” their restaurants into religious organizations and thus remaining open for Saturday and Sunday.

Double standards during weekend lockdown

The popular thinking is that the government is using the pandemic to satisfy the appetite of huge business. And it has some grounds. While weekend lockdowns close public markets where local farmers sell their products, huge national chains of supermarkets remain open. Similarly, while small businesses selling hardware and building materials were forced to close, the country’s largest network of Epicenter hardware supermarkets remained open. Yet all cafes had to close and were monitored closely by police. SMEs say this is unfair since public transportation and supermarkets themselves are much more dangerous places to contract Covid.

Not a surprise that such measures led to protests of small entrepreneurs in front of the Cabinet and Parliament which blocked the entire government quarter.

The first wave of protests took place across the country on15 November. Entrepreneurs protested in Kyiv and regional centers.

Protest of entrepreneurs against weekend lockdown gathered thousands of participants and blocked the entire government quarter in Kyiv. Source: Taras Kovalchuk’s Facebook

Later, on 17 November, a second wave of protests erupted across Kyiv, causing Parliament to reconsider the lockdown bill. In the end, the bill did not pass, with only 149 MPs voting to cancel weekend quarantine out of the 226 votes needed. From the 246 MPs of President Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People faction, only 34 MPs supported the bill. Protesters tried to enter Parliament but were stopped by police.

Social tension and government criticism continue to grow throughout Ukraine, while entrepreneurs go creative, turning their restaurants and shops into churches and religious organizations to continue working on weekends.

The wave of “religious restaurants”

Taras Kovalchuk, a business person from Ternopil, converted a restaurant into a church and a hostel into a monastery to stay open without restrictions during the weekend quarantine. The restaurant was renamed into the Brotherhood of the Bald. Judicially, it was registered as a religious group. Religious organizations face no limitations under quarantine except for the general requirement of social distancing.

People who visit Kovalchuk’s restaurant joke that they are going to Pastor Kovalchuk. Meanwhile, he welcomes new visitors (customers) as pilgrims and parishioners.

Taras Kovalchuk welcomes pilgrims to his restaurant. Source: Kovalchuk’s facebook

“Authorities in Kyiv do not listen to business and people in general, so we started preparing for two scenarios, explains Kovalchuk. 1) Pickets and protests at the national level. We tried to reach the government and explain that there is no logic to a day-off quarantine. It’s better to close everything then for 14 days, but really everything for a full lockdown; including, the Epicenter and Silpo, ATB [chains of supermarkets] and pharmacies, and dispensing only through a window. Well, from home no further than 500 meters. Then there may be a result, not these half-actions. Unfortunately, we were not heard. 2) We started looking for a legal mechanism for how we can continue to work in the new conditions. Poland (the most religious country in Europe) and its fitness center which became a church caught my eye. Therefore, today, 12 November, ten like-minded people voted at the general meeting to establish a religious organization “Brotherhood of the Bald” and approve the statute. Therefore, this weekend the hostel will work in the form of a monastery, Restaurant – A Temple.

Art. 35 of the Constitution of Ukraine says: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and religion. This right includes the freedom to profess any religion or not to practice any religion, to perform religious cults and ritual rites individually or collectively, and to conduct religious activities.’ We also offer pilgrimage tours to Ternopil, even on weekends! Bald is not an appearance – it is a state of mind!”

Kovalchuk says that police were coming four-to-five times a day. Police said the restaurant works illegally. It was hard, stressful for personnel.

“Currently, all our businesses have 16 protocols. Today there was yet another court hearing. We won it again. 90% of restaurants win court hearings.”

Similar religious cafes started operating in Kyiv. Thus, Veterano Brownie co-founder Roman Nabozhnyak “created” a St. Brownie Church in response to government restrictions. In particular, he invited guests to a festive “Brownie Mass” which took place over the weekend.

During the Brownie Mass. Source: bzh.life

The arguments of the critics of governmental decision

Oleksandr Kudriavtsev, Ukrainian attorney and founder of law firm

Ukrainian attorney Oleksandr Kudriavtsev emphasizes that governmental restrictions violate a number of rights, including the right to religious freedom, the right to entrepreneurial activity, the right to work, and the right to receive medical care. All the above rights are being limited by resolutions of the Cabinet of Ministers, decisions of the Ministry of Health and other government bodies, which is a direct violation of the Constitution of Ukraine. According to the Constitution, exclusively the laws of Ukraine determine the rights and freedoms of citizens. Thus, it follows from the sheer logic of the article that the restriction of these rights and freedoms should also be established exclusively by the laws of Ukraine:

“Regarding the activities of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine during the COVID-19 pandemic, my opinion remains unchanged since March this year. As a lawyer, I believe that the Ukrainian government, by imposing quarantine restrictions for a long time, is deliberately violating the basic law of the state – the Constitution of Ukraine. It arbitrarily restricts the fundamental rights and freedoms of its citizens. Recent government restrictions, including “weekend quarantine,” are no exception. Any violation of the law, especially by the State, humiliates a person, makes one constantly feel helpless. In addition, there is discrimination – hospitals will not accept scheduled patients, but will accept patients with coronavirus. However, is the former easier than the latter? After all, the statistics of cancer are no less impressive. These people have to wait for scheduled surgical interventions.”

Veleriy Pekar, Ukrainian entrepreneur, lecturer at business schools. Source: Facebook page of Valeriy Pekar

Prominent Ukrainian public intellectual Valeriy Pekar also comments on governmental decision-making from the perspective of game theory:

1. There are mathematical models in which weekend quarantine has a small positive effect on reducing the number of social contacts, which to some extent affects the rate of disease spread.
2. At the same time, in other mathematical models, weekend quarantine has zero or even negative effects.
3. We do not know which mathematical models are more adequate. This requires testing of models in practice, measurement.
4. At the same time, the negative economic effect of the weekend quarantine is quite large.
5. So, we have a decision matrix known from game theory. The epidemic effect is either positive or negative, but certainly small. The economic effect is definitely negative and great. Game theory, roughly speaking, teaches us not to chase big unlikely wins, but to avoid big high-probability losses. That is, purely mathematically, the decision to quarantine is wrong…

A mathematically incorrect quarantine decision from a strategic point of view may be acceptable in order to gain time to strengthen the capacity of the healthcare system. But such strengthening does not happen. So, we are going for a conscious loss.

Cinemas expect to take the greatest loss in comparison to other businesses. For the last eight months, they have been working with a minus-0 profit and are on the brink of bankruptcy.

“It’s a completely ineffective solution. I don’t understand how it can help when on weekdays all people ride the subway and take public transport, where the risks of infection are much higher. For our business, the introduction of weekend quarantine is deadly, because 80% of the income of all cinemas, as well as shopping malls, is gained during weekends,” said Dmytro Derkach, co-owner of the Planeta Kino cinema network.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal cautioned of a possible total lockdown if the weekend quarantine does not help, and also noted that the government works on the digitalization of the anti-Covid measures, including automatic fines applied to those who violate self-isolation rules.

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Edited by: Sonia Maryn

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