Grave problems for small businesses as Philippines bans holiday visits to cemeteries

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Manila North Cemetery is the biggest in metro manila with a land size of 54 hectares. Aside from the millions dead bodies buried here, it is also home to thousands of residents.

MANILA, NNA – The two-day 'Undas' Catholic holiday in the Philippines is one of the best times for small traders at cemeteries to make good money as thousands flock there to pay respects to loved ones.

But grave cleaners and hawkers selling flowers and candles especially in densely populated Manila this year will likely encounter police officers enforcing no-visiting rules on All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, which will fall on the first two days of November, instead of the yearly hordes of the faithful.

The government has banned visits to public and private cemeteries, memorial parks, and columbariums nationwide from Oct 29 to Nov 4 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus from getting worse.

The Philippines, which has the second highest number of coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia, saw figures going up to 376,935, after 1,761 were added on Thursday.

Colleen Sumayang, 48, who sells flowers in the famous flower market in the Dangwa neighbourhood in Manila city, lamented that the area is unusually quiet this year. In better times of past years, it was lively and swamped with customers one week before Undas, with people flocking there to order flowers in advance and hopping from stall to stall to find the best bargains, he said.

Another florist, Rheno Arcibal, 34, who helps out at his aunt's stall in the market said they used to display fresh-cut flowers along the narrow road so that motorists could easily pick them up from their vehicle as they made their way to nearby Manila North Cemetery. The ban has driven away visitors from their three flower stalls, he said.

“There is a huge change. Many customers are hesitant to come to this flower market now,” Arcibal said.

The prohibition was announced as early as September so that people could make early visits to the cemetery and reduce congestion. Even then, the number of visitors was limited to 30 percent of the venue’s capacity to ensure adequate physical distancing.

Visitor numbers for the Manila North Cemetery, one of the biggest burial grounds in the Philippines, would usually swell to hundreds of thousands to more than a million during Undas. It also drew thousands from distant provinces every year, according to cemetery staff.

The government, which is not banning Undas services at churches, recently announced easing of gathering restrictions to allow them to fill 30 percent of their capacity.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has re-launched its online Undas website to accept prayer requests from Filipinos for their departed loved ones. It will also livestream online masses.

Meanwhile, authorities have discouraged businesses and people from organising Halloween events that attract large numbers. In Manila, some places will be holding virtual events this weekend.

Two weeks before the scheduled closure, NNA paid a visit to the sprawling Manila North Cemetery and found few visitors.

It was not a good sign for Nerissa Ranoco, 52, a caretaker who cleans as many as 20 graves every year, and is paid only when people visit the graves.

“We can clean some of the graves, but we don’t know if the relatives will visit them,” said the woman, who still keeps her sense of duty despite the uncertainty.

For small traders like Arcibal and Sumayang operating near cemeteries and columbariums, prolonged COVID-19 lockdowns and lower consumer spending have added to their burdens.

Before the pandemic, Sumayang, who has been operating at the market for nine years, said he could earn 7,000 pesos ($144.56) a day from sales of flowers. But his takings have dropped to less than half of that amount now.

Arcibal said his flower shops would usually make as much as 40,000 pesos ($826) in five days before All Saint’s Day.

Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has hit small businesses selling non-essential items the hardest. When the government imposed strict lockdowns, both men had to close their stalls temporarily.

They re-opened in July when the government allowed more non-essential businesses to operate. However, their sales never reached more than half of pre-pandemic levels.

At the height of the lockdown in April, the majority of businesses that shuttered were run by small operators, according to a survey by The World Bank and the Philippine government.

As restrictions eased in July, less than half or 40 percent of more than 74,000 enterprises surveyed had remained temporarily closed while 20 percent shut down permanently.

A United Nations Development Program (UNDP) survey in the Philippines showed close to 80 percent of the 285 respondents from mini, small and medium enterprises reported a decline in average monthly income from April to June. More than 81 percent experienced low consumer demand.

However, most have shown to be agile when hit by hard times.

The majority of businesses The World Bank surveyed have turned to digital solutions to adapt to the new normal, while 62 percent of the MSMEs in the UNDP study said they employed digitalization as a strategy to boost sales.

Arcibal said he has turned to online selling of flowers and floral arrangements to eke a living and help pay stall rentals.

He said he can earn much more through online selling, especially by selling dried flowers which are used as home decoration. The flowers are delivered to customer doorsteps.

Lutgarda Rosales, 61, who owns two candle stalls, has tried her luck with online selling. But it could only cover her losses slightly and not helping much to boost her business. One of her candle stalls is located in Quiapo district in Manila city, the other in Rizal province north of Metro Manila.

The Philippines government has launched various short-term measures to help mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic to businesses and workers. These include wage subsidies, cash transfers, deferral of rent and loan payments.

Several bills tabled in Congress are also aimed at helping local businesses such as a proposal to lower corporate tax. But the passage of such bills takes time.

Offering immediate support, the government has allowed state-owned and controlled financing institutions to prioritize business opportunities for MSMEs.

The government also allocated 10 billion pesos for a loan package to support 50,000 micro and small businesses in its second stimulus package

But there are 1.5 million MSMEs in the country, said Philippine trade secretary Ramon Lopez during a Senate hearing in September.

MSMEs account for around 99.5 percent of business establishments in the Philippines and employ more than 60 percent of the country’s workforce.

The aid measures are obviously not enough, said Sergio Ortiz-Luis Jr., president of the Employers Confederation of the Philippines and director of treasurer of the Philippine Chambers of Commerce (PCCI).

Rosales, who took a loan to finance her candle business, said sales from cemetery visits during the first week of November could have helped pay her debt. But now, she is facing a grave problem trying to generate sales amid the Undas restrictions.

Some store owners at the famous flower market in Manila City have started selling other flower varieties aside from the fresh cut ones. This store of Rheno Arcibal has begun selling dried flowers since reopening in July due to high demand.