Coronavirus: Karaoke bars find new licensing rules to reopen a challenge

Forest Darts Cafe has reopened its Downtown East outlet but the approval process was onerous and costly, said co-owner Lena Sitoo. Few customers have returned as the darts and karaoke machines must remain powered down.
Forest Darts Cafe has reopened its Downtown East outlet but the approval process was onerous and costly, said co-owner Lena Sitoo. Few customers have returned as the darts and karaoke machines must remain powered down.PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Two weeks ago, Forest Darts Cafe raised the shutters on its Downtown East and Anson Road outlets after a four-month hiatus.

The darts and karaoke bar chain became the first member of the 120-strong Singapore Entertainment Affiliation to resume operations after two of its five outlets reopened as eateries.

But the approval process was onerous and costly, and without the star attractions, few customers have returned, said co-owner Lena Sitoo.

Thus is the quandary faced by the remaining karaoke operators that make up the affiliation, its chairman Ronald Ng noted.

While a number of public entertainment outlets, including amusement centres and pool halls, have been allowed to reopen in recent weeks, karaoke activities remain prohibited.

This is due to the higher risk of coronavirus transmission that singing presents, particularly in enclosed spaces.

For Ms Sitoo, the process of reopening her Downtown East outlet took several weeks and cost $730 in application and licence fees.

This entailed applying to the Urban Redevelopment Authority to add the word "cafe" to her premises' stated use, obtaining an approval letter from her landlord and applying to the Singapore Food Agency to change the outlet's food shop licence classification from bar and pub to snack bar.

As a result, it may continue to serve light bites and beverages as long as the electronic darts and karaoke machines remained powered down - something that could have been done from the start, Ms Sitoo, 52, pointed out. Forest Darts Cafe's Anson Road outlet has an existing snack bar licence.

Under the current rules, those with restaurant or snack bar licences may continue to operate if they stop offering public entertainment. Those with karaoke lounge, bar and pub licences, however, may not operate.

"A lot of bars are allowed to open just because they serve food. Those of us without kitchens can follow the same safe management measures, so I don't understand why we can't operate," said Ms Sitoo.

 
 

The absence of any indication as to when the industry may resume is a major worry as wage and rental subsidies draw to an end.

"If we at least have an estimate, we can plan," she said.

Mr Ng said many karaoke operators face space constraints and other challenges in pivoting their businesses and meeting new licensing requirements.

"About 70 per cent of the industry is pubs and bars, and it would help if they waived the change of use requirement and let us open without the singing. A lot of landlords are chasing for rental this month in full; we cannot sleep because it's so stressful," he said.

Last month, popular karaoke chain Teo Heng said it may soon be forced to close half of its 14 outlets due to the impact of the closures.

Karaoke Times co-founder Simon Sim said he hired a new employee for his year-old family karaoke business in City Square Mall in March, but had to let her go with compensation a month later as he could not afford to keep her on.

Mr Sim, 47, has been relying on savings to support his family over the last four months and is considering giving up the business.

But with two years left on the lease contract, walking away is no simple proposition. "If you give up the unit, management will ask you to get another tenant and if cannot, you forfeit your deposit. On top of that, you might be sued for the remaining contract and you still need to reinstate the shop," he said.

If no further government support is forthcoming, businesses will need help unwinding from such contracts, said Mr Ng.

"At least then, operators thinking of closing can close without liabilities."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2020, with the headline 'Karaoke bars find new licensing rules to reopen a challenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe