Coronavirus pandemic

Firms rush to be ready for 1-month closure of workplaces

Plans include working from home, tapping online and video-conferencing options; some seek exemption to continue operating

A view of the Apple store in Jewel Changi Airport on April 4, 2020. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

As Singapore puts in place a "circuit breaker" to fight a new wave of coronavirus infections, many businesses are scrambling to make preparations ahead of tomorrow's closure of workplaces for one month, except for key economic sectors and essential services, while some firms are planning to file applications to continue operating at their premises.

Some companies began making preparations for stricter safe distancing measures as early as last month. Since early March, global law firm Gibson Dunn has implemented a small legal and secretarial support group to be based in its Singapore office, while the other lawyers and staff work from home.

"We have been video-and telephone-conferencing our clients since early March in preparation for a lockdown situation when Covid-19 started to become a global problem," Gibson Dunn partner Robson Lee said.

Big Four law firm Rajah & Tann implemented full work-from-home for its lawyers and staff except for a group of core support staff, and closed its offices last week.

"Our core support team in the office will observe all government advisories on safe distancing, temperature taking, team segregation and staggered hours," said Mr Patrick Ang, the firm's managing partner.

"The courts will be reducing the hearing of a number of cases - and dealing only with the urgent and essential cases. Certain lawyers and staff will require exemption to go to the office to prepare for such hearings and, in certain cases, attend court in small teams via video-conferencing. Urgent and essential court applications such as injunctions and ship arrests will still continue," he added.

For corporate and real estate transactions, most negotiations can be done remotely, said Mr Ang. But certain aspects of the transaction, like completion and verification of original documents and exchange of documents, are still done with physical documents, he said.

Property developer City Developments (CDL) will close the six sales galleries it has been operating at the end of business today, a spokesman said. But during the one-month closure, CDL said, interested buyers will still be able to take a virtual showflat tour on its CDL Homes website and view floor plans and e-brochures.

CDL added: "Although CDL's offices are closed during this period, our operations continue, with our workforce telecommuting. For inquiries, our sales consultants remain contactable via telephone calls, e-mails and video-conferencing. Those who are ready to make purchases - we can assist with the sales process remotely."

Some local businesses such as Wholesome Bookbinding House are scrambling to file applications by the deadline today for exemption from suspension of activities during the one-month closure period.

"We provide book-binding services to printers, and are trying to continue to operate by working for those that are still allowed to operate during the one month because they are working for the government sector," said Ms Jacqueline Lim, Wholesome Bookbinding's managing director. "Most of our 50 workers are elderly and need the income to survive," she said.

The rent of $50,000, which still has to be paid even if the business closes for a month, will be a problem, she added. She said she has not received any word from her landlord Crescendas on when the 30 per cent property tax rebate for owners of office and industrial properties will be passed on.

For construction firms, most work will have to stop by tomorrow, but contractors that require time to wind down operations safely will be given a short grace period to do so over the next few days.

Mr Kenneth Loo, executive director and chief operating officer of Straits Construction, is among those awaiting clarity on the impact on his firm of the stepped-up containment measures for workers' dormitories, which house most of the industry's construction workers. These come as four new coronavirus clusters were identified last Saturday, three of which involved dormitories.

Yesterday, two foreign worker dormitories that have seen large numbers of Covid-19 cases were gazetted as isolation areas. Around 20,000 workers at S11 Dormitory @ Punggol and Westlite in Toh Guan will be quarantined in their rooms for the next 14 days.

"This just came out, so perhaps we need to clarify with the authorities today on whether foreign workers can come out to help wind down operations, Mr Loo said. "If companies have critical functions and have workers from these two dorms who cannot come out because of the isolation ruling, then it will be an issue."

He added that the Government's move last week to waive the foreign worker levy for this month "definitely helps us". "We are still bleeding because work has slowed drastically but costs are still there. To help us bleed less, we are hoping for more relief to cushion dormitory costs and foreign worker wages."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2020, with the headline Firms rush to be ready for 1-month closure of workplaces. Subscribe