It was eerie sight that greeted passersby on the GT Road as they crossed the Amrik-Sukhdev Dhaba at Sonipat’s Murthal. The courtyard of the eatery that remains chock-a-block with cars, bikes and foodies — most of them coming all the way from Delhi, some 50 kms away — had not a single soul in sight.
Two days ago 65 workers at the eatery had tested positive for Covid-19, following which the dhaba, which had started getting customers in good numbers following easing of curbs under Unlock 3.0, was sealed indefinitely.
The adjoining Garam Dharam Dhaba, ‘inspired’ by Hindi cinema veteran Dharmendra, too has been sealed — 17 of its staffers have been tested positive.
The Amrik-Sukhdev and Garam Dharam dhabas used to cater around 500-600 persons per hour in their open as well as air-conditioned dining halls.
The two eateries being forced shut has had a ripple effect on the business of other players along the highway connecting Delhi with Haryana, Punjab and Chandigarh. The highway — NH-44 — dotted with more than 100 dhabas on both its flanks has over past several years emerged as a favourite food haunt for truckers and travellers, especially the NRIs who land at IGI airport and make a stopover at these places before heading back to their roots in Punjab and Haryana.
The Indian Express travelled visited a number of these eating joints in Sonipat, Panipat, Karnal and Ambala. Otherwise extremely lively places with hundreds of people dining and an equal number queuing up for their turns to get a table, Saturday was an extremely different day as the Haryana’s health department officials wearing PPE kits and accompanied by a posse of police personnel went around screening people working at these dhabas.
At least 11 more dhaba workers were found positive Saturday.
Originally known for their paranthas and tea, some of these dhabas can give a tough competition to a 4-star hotel with their swanky facades and lavish menus. While no social distancing or sanitisation measures were found in place at many smaller dhabas that mainly have truck drivers as their clients, but the prominent ones were seen following the standard operating procedures (SoPs) issued as part of precautionary measures during pandemic.
From replacing crockery with disposable utensils, thermal screening and sanitisation of hands at the time of entry, hourly sanitisation of the entire floor and sanitisation of tables before making it available to the guests, and no entry of guests without masks, these are among the precautionary measures that the dhaba managements are taking these days.
Mannat Haveli at Murthal, which is part of the Mannat Group of Hotels, is one of the most prominent eating joints on this highway. The group has five outlets out of which four are currently operational. CEO Harsh Kumar told the Indian Express that the dhabas on Delhi-Chandigarh highway are primarily dependent on two factors – NRIs on way to Punjab or Himachal and people from Delhi getting out of the crowded city for a highway drive during weekends. “We also used to cater to the youth studying in various educational institutes in and around Sonipat and Delhi. After resuming our operations a month back, the business was getting back on track. We had almost touched 30-35 per cent of our original volumes. But, the recent incident wherein workers at two dhabas were found Covid positive has hit us hard again. We have suddenly slipped to 8-10 per cent of our original business,” said Harsh Kumar.
The 65 workers of Amrik-Sukhdev Dhaba who tested positive, had recently returned from their native places in UP and Bihar. They were staying with their co-workers at staff quarters constructed near the dhaba. Sonu Sharma, who works as a manager at Amrik-Sukhdev, didn’t talk about the neumber of people who visited the eatery, but was worried as the Sonipat district administration has given no clear orders as to when the Dhaba can be reopened for guests.
“Our premises is currently being sanitised. We are getting every nook and corner properly sanitised so that we can soon start serving people again,”he said.
Murthal-based Gulshan Dhaba too had resumed operations about 50 days ago. “Before lockdown, we used to cater to around 450-500 clients in an hour that has now reduced to about 100-150 per day. Now with the recent incident of dhaba workers being tested positive, the business has suffered a severe blow,” said Mahavir, manager at Gulshan Dhaba.
Mahavir said they had their workers tested for coronavirus 15-20 days ago. “We are currently working with only 30-35 workers since there are not many customers coming in”.
Regarding screening of their workers for Coronavirus, Amrik-Sukhdev’s Harsh Kumar said, “One round of testing of all our workers was conducted on August 14. None was found positive. Another round, I have learnt, is likely to take place Sunday”.
Abhishek Dikshit was having food with his family at Jhilmil Dhaba when the health department’s team reached there and began screening of the staff.
Dikshit, who stays in Pitampura, New Delhi, is a regular to the dhabas at Murthal. “We used to regularly come to this highway for a drive and family get together. We had to discontinue it after Covid struck and today we came here to have lunch, after almost four-five months. These dhabas are frequently visited by people from Delhi because they serve authentic Punjabi food. We visit these dhabas because of their open-air dining and rural touch. It is scary to learn that the dhaba workers have started testing positive for Coronavirus,” he said.
Dr. Sanjeev Chandna, who was heading one of the health department teams that conducted a screening camp at Karnal’s Mayur Dhaba and three adjoining outlets of Jhilmil Dhaba, said, “We launched the screening after dhaba workers were found positive at Murthal. Today, we found 11 dhaba workers – four at Mayur Dhaba, two at Jhilmil Dhaba and five at other dhabas in Karnal city — positive. In total, we screened 155 persons through rapid antigen testing, and found 18 of them positive. The screening drive will continue in the coming days, too. Both, Mayur Dhaba and Jhilmil Dhaba’s one outlet have been shut for 48 hours. Sanitisation is going on and we have put up posters at the entry points. The workers who tested positive were asymptomatic. We have isolated them”.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines