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KUALA LUMPUR - Alex Chong, whose company, MBA Crew, owns nine restaurants in Malaysia was having trouble last Friday luring customers in for lunch, a sign of the economic pain facing the country because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There was not a lot of foot traffic at the MyTown Shopping Centre, a destination mall in a commercial area, and Chong, MBA Crew's managing director, was standing in front of one of the company's restaurants, Leleh, specializing in Malaysian food.
"Just a couple of weeks ago, we would have had a lot more foot traffic in the mall at this time," he told VOA.
It has been this way across Malaysia for the past week. The country has seen a surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases.
"So, people are just staying at home and they are more afraid," Chong said.
For several months it looked like Malaysia had things generally under control, but the country had record high new case numbers several days last week. A popular shopping mall has been temporarily closed after several positive cases were linked to it. Even Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and several members of his Cabinet are now in quarantine after Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri tested positive.
"It just shows how anyone can get this and we all need to be really careful," said Sam Lee, age 29, as he headed to his car after finishing work on Friday. "I'm going straight home now. No happy hour drinks for me," he said.
Rising health concerns are taking an increasing toll on local businesses.
Chong said business at his restaurants is down by more than 50% from just a few weeks ago. He said if this continues for a few more weeks he may have to close two restaurants and lay off about 20 employees.
"We'll have to shut down those locations where our landlords don't give us rebates, our landlords don't help us with the rentals," Chong said.
Hakimi Azri, 32, had lunch outside with some friends Friday but said such occasions are becoming rarer for him because the rising number of COVID-19 cases has convinced him to spend more time at home.
"Most of the time, I only just go to work and then just immediately go back to the house," he said. "Even for my colleagues and my friends, I can say they're doing like that."
At Lim Brothers Fruits, Ben Lim made his store's signature rojak fruit salad, a Southeast Asian specialty, with a mix of papaya, mango, apples, guava and spices. The shop has been operating for 45 years.
Lim said business has dropped 40% just in the past week, on top of decreased sales since the start of the pandemic, and now the store is barely breaking even.
"Much more fear, concern about how the businesses will be affected, on the rental of this shop, and the salary of our staff," he said.
Lim said that, so far, the store has not laid off any employees, but he took a pay cut. He also said the store is stocking considerably less fruit than it was before the pandemic.
Chong said that after several rough months, starting in March, his restaurants were bouncing back in August and September and he had thought a comeback was on the horizon, but the latest plunge has changed his outlook.
"I'm totally blank. I don't know what to do," he said.