Cambodia business

As Covid-19 Rules Fall, Businesses Face an Uncertain Future

Prime Minister Hun Sen has lifted nearly all health safety restrictions. Yet for all the problems his measures have solved, companies are discovering that pre-pandemic ways of life are unlikely to return soon, if ever.
Traffic on a street in central Phnom Penh on November 10, 2021. Picture: stringer
Traffic on a street in central Phnom Penh on November 10, 2021. Picture: stringer

The shop manager watched as two young men played chess in his tiny downtown café. Business had been dreadful since the pandemic hit, and the return of customers gave him new optimism.

After nearly two years of health measures aimed at slowing the coronavirus, the government began lifting Covid-19 restrictions late last month. At Zhona Café, a cozy, street-side coffee shop in the shadows of Central Market, things were starting to feel busy again.

“I support the reopening,” said Kith Chab, a 22-year-old barista at Zhona. “Coffee sales are up from 50 to around 80 cups per day.”

People drink coffee on an alley in Phnom Penh on November 11, 2021. Picture: stringer
People drink coffee on an alley in Phnom Penh on November 11, 2021. Picture: stringer

Prime Minister Hun Sen began loosening pandemic health regulations in late October. He cited the country’s remarkable vaccination rates as a key driver of his decision. Cambodia has inoculated nearly 90% of its population, including most children.

Since Hun Sen’s announcement, most health restrictions have been lifted and companies are again fully operational. Yet for all the problems the reopening has solved, many shops are finding that customers, and even staff, remain scarce, and pre-pandemic ways of life are unlikely to return soon, if ever.

Li Heng, a stall owner at Tuk Thla market on the capital’s west end, said he was thrilled the government finally allowed businesses like his to reopen. But after two weeks, he was earning less than half of what he did before the pandemic. “My business is recovering,” he told Kiripost, but he was unsure when, or if, sales would ever return to pre-pandemic levels.

Companies that catered to large groups were among the hardest hit. Restaurants had endured seating limitations since February 2020. Cinemas were shut completely. Both were allowed to reopen with few restrictions as part of the prime minister’s measures.

As elsewhere, life in the entertainment industry was improving. But normal? Many wondered if that would ever return.

Legend Cinema, which operates nine capital movie theaters, was struggling with staffing shortages as well as slow ticket sales. “Business is not like before,” said Tevoneath Ros, operations director at Legend. “It is much quieter. People still seem afraid of public gatherings.”

Visitors go to a cinema in Phnom Penh on October 30, 2021. Picture: stringer
Visitors go to a cinema in Phnom Penh on October 30, 2021. Picture: stringer

As movie-goers trickled back, Rothana Tevy lined up for a ticket to see Marvel Studio’s latest, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” As thrilled as she was to be back at the movies, she couldn’t help worrying about Covid-19 either.

“Even though everyone was wearing masks, and the cinema followed Covid-19 preventive measures, I still felt unsafe because there were so many people,” said the 22-year-old RULE senior.

“It’s not the same feeling,” she said. “Life now is a lot different than before, in a world with no Covid.”