Businesses in Hougang hit hard by recent Covid-19 cluster nearby

Ding Feng Wellness Zone Reflexology at Block 684 Hougang Ave 8 has seen a 70 per cent drop in footfall since Covid-19 cases were detected at the nearby Block 506, says Madam Goh Ai Kim, a massage therapist who works at the foot reflexology shop. ST PHOTO: YONG LI XUAN

SINGAPORE - Since about a month ago, when Covid-19 cases were first detected at Block 506 Hougang Avenue 8, Madam Goh Ai Kim has seen a 70 per cent drop in footfall at the foot reflexology shop she works at in nearby Block 684.

"The Block 506 cluster has had a very big impact on our business. Virtually no one enters the shop from morning till evening, maybe because they are scared to go out," said the 74-year-old massage therapist in Mandarin.

"I feel very discouraged as I am paid by commission. I don't feel like working any more, but I have nowhere else to go. With so few customers, I just watch videos on my phone or nap to pass the time."

The 13 cases linked to the cluster at Block 506, as well as another three individuals linked to the Changi Airport cluster who also live in the block, triggered a series of intensive testing operations in Hougang over the past month.

Residents and visitors to Block 506 had to undergo mandatory testing on May 21 and 22, as did those at Blocks 501 and 507 from June 1 to June 3. Three people later tested positive, out of the 1,233 tested across the three blocks.

The Block 506 cluster has not seen any new cases since June 1.

In a mandatory second round of testing from June 4 to 6 for residents of Block 506 and shop staff at seven neighbouring blocks, all 1,413 tested negative.

Free testing was also offered to visitors of Block 506 as well as residents of and visitors to the seven other blocks from June 4 till Thursday (June 17), when the voluntary testing operation wrapped up. None of the 4,384 individuals who volunteered to be tested by June 10 were positive for Covid-19.

Like Madam Goh, many workers at shops in the neighbourhood felt the cluster and the testing operations had affected business.

Many said they had seen significant drops in traffic and in revenue - of up to 70 per cent - compared with before the cluster emerged.

A man in his 60s, who owns a shop in one of the blocks that had to undergo testing, said his revenue has fallen about 70 per cent compared with two months ago.

"Honestly, I've faced a lot of pressure in the last year. I've had to draw on my savings to pay rent every month. It's not fair for those of us who cannot get government aid like hawkers can," said the man, who did not want to be named.

He said he could not bear to close the shop that he had been running for more than 30 years.

A coffee shop supervisor who gave her name as Ah Gun said daily revenue had fallen to about $400 to $500 a day, compared with about $2,000 before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Darryl David, the Ang Mo Kio GRC MP for the ward where some of the affected blocks are located, said the area is usually a bustling centre of activity.

He said he was not surprised to hear that some of the confirmed cases from Block 506 in the neighbouring ward had gone over to the shops in Hougang Village, as the area is called.

"Hougang Village has a (FairPrice) supermarket, it's got a wet market, and there are six coffee shops there. It's a very well patronised area - not just by the residents of those blocks but also those from all the blocks nearby."

He added: "We've done the best we can to make sure that we sanitised this place as quickly as possible. Once people understand that there's no real major spread, hopefully, they will slowly come back with some confidence."

He said it is difficult to say how much of the recent impact on businesses was due to the heightened alert measures that began on May 16, including a ban on dining in.

Despite the fallout for businesses, some residents in the area told The Straits Times they understood the need for the testing operations and were not worried for themselves.

Mr Harish Mehra, 42, a resident of Block 688, was spotted playing ball games with his son and brother near his home. "We don't go to any other places. We just come down to play sports and buy food from the market," he said.

Several like Mr Goh Hway Beng, 71, also said they were not worried as they had been fully vaccinated.

Mr David said residents he spoke to while making the rounds and dropping off fliers about the voluntary testing operations were generally calm and understood that it was just a precaution being taken.

Meanwhile, Mr Gerald Giam, the Aljunied GRC MP for the ward where Block 506 and several other affected blocks are located, said life is more or less back to normal for most of his residents.

"Some told me that they are now taking greater care to prevent infections, which I think is one good thing that has come out of this difficult process," he said.

"Several also told me that they booked vaccination appointments after this episode, which I am very encouraged to hear because it will significantly reduce the spread and severity of infections."

Mr Giam said the swabbing operation had in fact made the neighbourhood more safe, not less.

"All infected individuals have been quarantined and are not mingling undetected in the community, so everyone should feel safe patronising these shops again, if they take the necessary precautions at all times."

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