Malaysia's 'buka puasa' buffets return with strict Covid-19 safety protocols

A chef at a "buka puasa" buffet at Sunway Resort, Malaysia, serving food to a guest as part of safety protocols during the Covid-19 pandemic. 
A chef at a "buka puasa" buffet at Sunway Resort, Malaysia, serving food to a guest as part of safety protocols during the Covid-19 pandemic. ST PHOTO: HAZLIN HASSAN

KUALA LUMPUR - After having to bear the brunt of two partial lockdowns since March last year, some hotels in Malaysia are now offering Ramadan packages for the holy fasting month, to entice staycationers amid a ban on interstate travel.

The deals include pre-dawn meals and buffets for breaking the fast (buka puasa).

Such iftar buffets were banned last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But hotels in Kuala Lumpur have been full this past week with some fully booked right up to Hari Raya on May 13, in part due to reduced seating capacities to ensure safe distancing.

As part of health protocols, known as standard operating procedures (SOPs), restaurants have to operate at half-capacity with diners donning disposable plastic gloves.

Most iftar buffets have switched to a cafeteria-style system, where customers point out what they want. They are not allowed to help themselves to the food.

Some hotels have also installed clear screens at buffet stations for added protection.

When health practitioner Mazlina Mahathir, 27, and engineer Mohd Elias Eusoff, 31, heard that the Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur was offering a Ramadan staycation package, they decided to check in for one night last week.

The couple were married in February, but have had to postpone their honeymoon trip overseas due to the travel ban and border closure.

"I was a bit sceptical about the stay, so we decided if the crowd is too big for our liking, or if people just don't seem to care about the SOPs, we'd head back to our room and order food from there," Ms Mazlina told The Straits Times.

"But I really appreciate that the servers are trained to remind the patrons (of the SOPs), because some people just couldn't care less or they forget.

"So having the staff go around and remind us is great. We feel more confident, safe and secure dining out. This is probably the closest thing to the 'old normal' that we can get."

The maximum capacity for the restaurant in the hotel serving the "buka puasa" buffet is 144, but to comply with safe distancing requirements, only 98 people are allowed to dine in per session.

Sunway Resort in Selangor, which is also offering a staycation package for the month, has halved its seating capacity for the restaurant serving its "buka puasa" buffet, from 400 to 200, and implemented safety measures, including providing guests with gloves for dining.

A man puts on a disposable plastic glove at a "buka puasa" buffet at Sunway Resort, Malaysia, as part of safety protocols during the Covid-19 pandemic. PHOTO: HAZLIN HASSAN

"Bookings for the buffet have been overwhelming for the first week of the fasting month, better than 2019, at about 75 per cent (of capacity).

"For the following weeks, we are looking at 80 per cent," Sunway Resort director of catering Danny Kukendran told ST.

According to Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur, its iftar buffet has similarly received an "overwhelming response" and is fully booked almost every day until Hari Raya.

"It seems that the flexibility in dine-in movements have motivated guests to dine out for iftar as an occasional affair," Grand Hyatt general manager Olivier Lenoir told ST.

Ms Sharon Chen, who is self-employed and in her 40s, said she felt reassured attending a "buka puasa" buffet at Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur even though it was full as SOPs were closely followed.

"I feel safe enough. There are partitions at every station, all guests are required to keep their mask on when queuing for food, and the staff will serve you."